Category Archives: Book Reviews

“Philomena” – A film with many powerful messages.

A review of the 2013 film. Also now a book.

[Review by Rev John Smith]

Introduction:
Recently Robyn and I had the emotionally evocative experience of watching this film superbly acted by Judy Dench and ably supported by Steve Coogan. The film is enhanced greatly by a magnificent classical music score. Overall it is a film with a number of very powerful messages about the practice of the Catholic Church regarding young unmarried mothers and the adoption of their offspring. The self righteous attitude of the church authorities in their disregard for the rights of young unmarried mothers and their chiIdren is placed under the microscope as is the reactionary and equally self righteous attitudes of their critics. As a beautiful counter balance we have the reaction of Philomena who has experienced the indignity of being treated as a “sinner” who gave into ‘her carnal desires’ coupled with the forced removal of her three year old child by being coerced into signing away her parental rights. The intriguing response from Philomena is not the seeking of revenge. She does not want the perpetuators punished; she is simply seeking to find out what happened to Anthony her son fifty years after his birth. Regardless of the indignity inflicted on Philomena by the Catholic authorities she still continues to practice her faith in a devout and committed manner.

Philomena reveals her circumstances to her daughter from a subsequent marriage and declares her secret desire to find her son. Her daughter in turn through a chance meeting recruits an ex BBC journalist and Labour government advisor Martin Sixsmith, played by Steve Coogan. He is in need of work and an editor urges him to assist Philomena and to write a ‘human interest’ story rather than some dry Russian history research that he is planning to do.
Martin is not fully convinced that he wants to have any part of this until while drinking in a pub in the locality of the convent in which Philomena gave birth he is provided with information by a young bartender. It appears that the reason the convent has no records of the adoption activity is that the nuns deliberately destroyed all the records by burning them. The bartender further suggests that the convent received a thousand pounds for each child sold to American couples. If that was not enough Martin was also aware that the young unmarried mothers had been put to work in a laundry for virtually no pay while being treated like slaves.

Martin through his work at the BBC has many contacts in the United States and through these contacts he searches the passport records to discover that Anthony had been adopted by Dr and Marge Hess who renamed him Michael. Michael had studied law and had become a senior official in the Reagan administration and served the Republican Party with distinction. Martin also realises that he actually met Michael when he was a journalist with the BBC while covering the news in the US. Martin also discovers that Michael was a closet homosexual and his long-term partner is Peter Olson. Michael had unfortunately died of AIDS nine years previously.
Armed with this information Martin informs Philomena of his findings and her initial reaction to this news is one of sadness that Michael was not able to be open about his lifestyle, because of his position in a political party, which at that time condemned homosexuality. Philomena although upset at not being able to meet her son as an adult wishes to meet the people who did know him.

The first person they meet is a woman known as Mary who had been adopted with Anthony/Michael from the same convent in Roscrea Ireland. Mary is able to tell Philomena the whereabouts of Michael’s long-term partner, but cannot tell Philomena what she most wants to know which is, ‘did he ever seek to find his birth mother’?

The initial approach to Michael’s partner Peter by Martin Sixsmith, is met with resistance, but he finally he agrees to meet Philomena after she makes a personal plea for his help. Peter is able to tell her that Michael has always wondered about his birth mother and that he had actually visited the convent in Ireland in an attempt to make contact with her. Unfortunately the nuns had lied to him saying that they had no record of Philomena’s whereabouts and had no contact with her. Michael’s life is dreadfully cut short by his AIDS condition but his dying wish is to be buried at the convent with a headstone stating who he is in the hope that Philomena will find it.
Martin and Philomena return to the convent where the nuns continue to deny Philomena the information she seeks regarding Michael’s grave and his last days. In a final scene Michael confronts a senior nun, Sister Hildegarde and in a dramatic and poignant scene demands she explain why she had denied Philomena access to her son and further lied to her son regarding knowledge of his birthmother’s whereabouts. In this scene the aggrieved person is not Philomena as one would expect, but Martin the journalist who rounds on this elderly nun and demands she make an explanation of her behaviour. The nun testily answers that Martin is not her judge only Jesus will judge her and Philomena had relinquished her right to justice through her sin of fornication. The nun is clearly unrepentant and it is this that triggers an outburst from Martin when he tells the nun that if Jesus had been present he would have tipped her “out of her F—-g chair”. The dialogue and acting in this scene is transfixing, but it is Philomena who comes to the nun’s rescue when she tells Martin that his anger is really a waste of energy and she tells him to examine himself, because the anger is all consuming. Philomena doesn’t want to end up hating anyone and at this point she turns to Hildegarde and exclaims, “I forgive you”. The nun shows no recognition that she needs to be forgiven but it is important for Philomena to utter these words.

An analysis of the message
Throughout the film Martin and Philomena present two quite contrasting views on the value of religious adherence. Even though Philomena has suffered rejection and condemnation from the Order of Catholic Nuns it does not deter her from her belief in the sacred presence of God found in the ordnances of the Catholic faith. Whereas Martin is angry at the self-righteous deceit that he has discovered in the brutal and guilt-laden treatment of young unmarried mothers, one who had died in childbirth aged fourteen years. Early in the film Martin declares that he is a lapsed Catholic who no longer believes in a God. The respective positions of Philomena and Martin add significantly to the message of the film.

Each of the major characters continues to question their particular religious viewpoints and these become vital scenes in the film. I was particularly taken by the scene when Philomena goes to make confession whilst in the United States. The painfulness of this scene is palpable, because she cannot say confession. The reason being she has nothing to confess. Earlier she has told Martin that having sex as a teenager had been a wonderful experience, quite unlike what she had been told and that she never regretted it. She explained it as a sense of ‘floating free.’

During the confessional scene the priest offers her forgiveness in response to her silence, but the telling moment is that as she is leaving the church she does not use the holy water just inside the door to bless herself. Martin who is witnessing her leave the church stands watching the bowl of water well after she has left the church as if to say, “Is she questioning her faith?”
The film raises for me the question, ‘how then should we approach our events of life?’ Should we be like Martin who wants to right a wrong and sees the injustice of the church going almost unchallenged? Or should we respond like Philomena who doesn’t want to end up consumed by anger as is Martin and in her offer of forgiveness is saying to the church through Sister Hildegarde you have not won there is a faith that is life enhancing and not a guilt ridden life–destroying existence.

However watching Hidergarde’s expression when Philomena offers forgiveness I did not see any recognition that she was feeling guilty and filled with remorse for her attitude and actions regarding Philomena and her son. It also reminded me that here in Australia we have witnessed the Catholic Church hierarchy showing self-righteous indignation when being called to account for it’s deliberate cover up of the many instances of Child Sexual Abuse. Will it take the anger of someone like Martin Sixsmith to confront the church with it’s errant behaviour before there is any admission of guilt for what has occurred? How many times have the authorities of the Church claimed that they are responsible only to God or Jesus for their behaviour, and not to the community in which they live. As if they have been ordained with some special wisdom that prevents them from being accountable to the wider community.

The argument given by Hildegarde that she is responsible only to Jesus for what she has done again raises the issue that the church has seen itself above the law and responsible only to some sacred presence. A number of my friends in the Catholic Church will tell me that they can experience a special relationship with the sacred in the Mass and that I as a ‘Progressive Christian’ cannot experience this relationship; because my rational thinking denies me an understanding of the awesomeness of God. In the words of Paul Keating many Catholics give the impression that they have a ‘divine guidance’ that is unavailable to those who are not of the Roman faith. I wonder if this is the very attitude that has allowed such abuses to occur, particularly when people place themselves above common law. Surely the compassionate God that has been revealed in the person of Jesus would claim that we have a responsibility to our fellow human beings, because when we cease to care for our fellow human beings we cease to care for the sacredness of a divine presence.

In the final scene Martin and Philomena find the headstone that Anthony/Michael was hopeful his mother would discover. While standing at the graveside Martin out of respect for Philomena and perhaps as a result of being chastened for his anger tells her he will not publish the story. Her response is a surprise when she tells him that she has changed her mind and that the story really does need to be told.

I am sure I am not the only person who is grateful to Philomena for changing her mind.

John W H Smith

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Book Review: Outspoken

Fr. Rod Bower, 2018,

Outspoken: The Life and Work of the Man behind the Signs.

Penguin Books

Born to a young unmarried mother through to his adoption, Rod Bower shares his struggles to establish his identity in the midst of bullying and his step-father’s early death. He finds acceptance within Anglo-Catholicism, eventually going to seminary, ordination and appointment to the Gosford Parish with a deep passion for social justice. Promoted to Archdeacon, he resigns when prohibited from providing pastoral care to a parishioner because of their being on a criminal charge. He steps down from the high calling of celibacy, to marry a divorcee. Now a step-father to two teenagers, he loves into adulthood. His marriage energises his public ministry of billboard signs and social media posts from which they endure a conservative backlash.

His theology of billboard signs reveals a deep empathy for Jesus’ mission to the marginalised which in the modern context involves challenging attitudes towards “illegal” asylum seekers, Islam, LGBTQ and climate change. Fr Rod Bower demonstrates how billboards gives the Church a platform for sharing the Gospel in the public square, exposing the ethical failings of Parliament.

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Fr Rod Bower’s “Stages of Spirituality” gives valuable insight into institutional Christianity, from Stage One “ego driven” Pentecostalism, to Stage Two “ego within safe boundaries” of Church rules and regulations, to Stage Three where Church people move out engaging in secular projects for the “Common Good”. The fourth and final stage is that of the Mystics who move seamlessly between all stages. Fr Rod Bower positions his ministry at Stage Three with a future goal of being an Independent Senator who maintains separation between Church and State, by resigning his priesthood if so elected.

A prophetic book by a deeply spiritual person engaged with the suffering of the world.
Richard Smith  22 December 2018

Richard C.G. Smith, PhD – From Farm Economist to Earth Systems Scientist measuring human impacts from satellite to help manage a global warming future. Lay Preacher and Chairperson of WA Progressive Christian Network. Chair of Creative Living Centre, Floreat Uniting Church, walking along side Indigenous peoples of Mowanjum in the West Kimberley and West Papua, Eastern Indonesia.

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Pre-publication extract: Starting all over again. Yes or No?

George Stuart (Singing a New Song) has kindly given us open access to his yet to be published book.

Starting all over again? Yes or No?

A faithful questioning of all I have been taught
about God, Jesus, Creation, Humanity,
Prayer, Sacrifice, Life after Death, Heaven
and the Bible.

From the Conclusion and after a far ranging practical and interesting discussion questioning eight decades of traditional church teaching:

What comes next for me?
I have taken up the challenge presented by Dr Val Webb in her recent book ‘Testing Tradition and Liberating Theology’ where she states that her aim …’is to help lay people in particular to see that there has never been only one way to think about God and that traditional arguments have often been held in place by power and authority against other more refreshing theologies. My aim is to keep people ‘doing their own theology’- finding something that works for them and is transforming in our contemporary world.’

I hope I have not betrayed her trust in regular church-goers. Unlike most regular church-goers, I have had a formal theological training and I have probably done more theological reading and solid Bible study than most others so I suppose I am not really representative of the great bulk of people who still attend church services. Even so, not being an academic theologian, a biblical scholar nor historian, I still have this urge to make a response of my continual questioning. Some of this has been very difficult for me, but Val Webb has challenged me to find my faltering, and partially-informed voice.

So how do I respond to all this ‘faithful questioning’, concerning the exercise of my discipleship? Am I virtually saying that the Bible has got it wrong about a theistic God? Am I saying the early church fathers got it wrong about Jesus? Am I saying that the church, for hundreds of years has been preaching the wrong message about the Cross and God’s Plan for Salvation? To an extent I suppose I am. Some might say that is very arrogant. I’m not sure how to respond to that accusation. All I can say is, that this is where my study, my searching and all my ‘faithful questioning’ has led me.

Sometimes I feel I am betraying the church and Jesus. Sometimes I feel I have been betrayed by the church and its teachings. I never feel betrayed by Jesus.
So what is the outcome? In many areas of my belief I perceive I have had to ‘Start all over again’. However, I believe I am now in a much more belief-satisfying and Jesus-centred situation than before.

I have tried to argue my positions logically. I have included smatterings of cosmology, psychology and natural sciences in my comments. I have spoken of my experiences as nearly determinative for me. I have tried to state issues as I have perceived them to be, from a church-goer’s perspective. I have relied on new for me, and old information. I have tried to be rational in what I have proposed. I have concentrated on what I see as common sense, plausible and reasonable for my day and age.
I also realise that if I had been brought up as a Buddhist or a Muslim or in any other faith, I would probably have a completely different set of beliefs but I hope I would still be ‘faithfully questioning’ everything. There must always be the ‘Yes. But…..’
And in my continuing questioning journey I believe that

• I must allow both logic and dreaming to have a voice.
• I must embrace both the ‘possible’ and the ‘impossible’.
• I must allow science to be heard alongside poetry.
• I must consider new information but not let it silence wisdom.
• I must not allow the past to dictate the present or the future.

All these have a contribution to make to my human response to Mystery.

Having worked through these eleven major areas of my ‘faithful questioning’, I believe that if people shared only one of these concerns, they might find it sufficient reason to turn their back on the church and leave. I believe that altogether, these concerns could form a very solid basis for very serious consideration to do just that. I could expand further on my reasons for ‘clearing out’ so much, but I wish to state that I think my present beliefs are more Jesus-based. I also wish to correct any impression I may have given, that I feel there is nothing in the Christianity I have been taught which excites or inspires me. That is not the case. There is much, and it all has to do with Love; that which is an emphasis I experience in my church affiliation today.

What keeps me in the church and continuing to struggle with it, is the story of Jesus. For me, it would be good for the church, in its doctrine, its teachings and its practised liturgies, to concentrate more on the human Jesus and less on the distinct and often distant God. I believe we would then be on much more relevant and helpful ground. So I hope I have presented alternative ways of understanding and practising the faith of my childhood, youth and following years, even though in some areas of my questioning I have had to ‘Start all over again’.

So, endless questioning. Maybe some rather pointless. Continuing reappraisal. Maybe some rather dodgy. More rejections. Maybe some rather challenging. More affirmations. Maybe some rather bold. More journeying with Jesus. Maybe most of it rather exciting but always challenging.

All together, if it helps to nurture me and you as disciples, to bring love to blossom, to spread justice and mercy, to encourage ourselves and others to live abundantly, then all of this endeavour may have been worthwhile. If not, it has all been a waste of time, both yours and mine!

Let me conclude, remembering a saying of Jesus, “I tell you this; unless you turn around and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of Heaven.” So I appeal to the little child in me and each of us.

Do you know this rhyme?

Scintillate. Scintillate. Globule vivific.
Feign would I fathom thy nature specific.
Loftily poised in the ether capacious;
Strongly resembling a gem; carbonaceous.

You may not. However, I think you may remember this one.

Twinkle. Twinkle little star.
How I wonder what you are.
Up above the world so high;
Like a diamond in the sky.

I believe both rhymes are important. ‘To scintillate’ is significant and ‘to fathom’ can certainly lead to spiritual growth. I also wish to affirm that both ‘to twinkle’ and ‘to wonder’ are profound.

Let us twinkle for ourselves, Jesus and most importantly for others around us. Let us love. You in your small corner and I in mine.

The way we live is more important than what we believe.

My warmest greetings. Grace and Peace. George.

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Book Review: God, Ethics and the Secular Society

Does the Church have a Future? by John Gunson

Just how much are we prepared to be challenged? How far can a critique of the Church as an institution rather than a community be explored? John Gunson takes the reader on a ride that calls for a total rethink of what it means to follow Jesus. This is a no compromise, no apologies, intensely argued case against religion and in favour of a Jesus movement that is centred on ecological ethics and shared responsibility for the future.

Like all great journeys it will stay in the memory and forever affect the subconscious of the reader. For John Gunson the key question is not ‘What is the meaning of life?’ but ‘How should we live?’.

A Jesus ethical ecology will always go further than living for personal meaning – it is to live primarily with ‘the good of all’ being the goal – a pursuit of the greater goal … ‘acting from the point of view of the universe’.

This is a comprehensive coverage of the evolution of religious and theological thinking that has grown around ‘theories of God’ and the parallel growth of scientific thinking that provides alternative answers to developing doctrines. The author is not soft on supernatural theism and also does not see ‘panentheism’ the favourite of many progressives, as the answer. He describes a ‘third way’ – ‘God’ as symbol for the highest and the best that we know or can conceive, a symbol of goodness, truth and love. In doing this he accommodates a scientific world view. He rejects a dualism of the sacred and scientific and sees integrity of personal experiences explained realistically rather than by ‘faith’ and ultimately asks whether Christian theology is worth keeping. What do we lose if we throw out orthodox Christian theology? Is the world any poorer by rejecting scripture as literal?

But John Gunson argues for the retention of much – our urgent and desperate need to overcome self-centredness; our embracing of the Jesus Way as freeing us from self and being for all; the Jesus community as agent for nurturing and sustaining life; a world society where we can live out Jesus’ way of love.

He conducts a splendid survey of contemporary scholarship about Jesus that reveals much that we never had access to in our learning of orthodox theology. He critiques Paul, the dogmas of the Church, the historical perspectives that shaped the Church and makes the case for ‘ethical ecology’ as a basis for constructive living – the core message of Jesus. Ethical ecology asserts that the rational person’s knowledge of the world, and of self, can lead to understanding that the good of each depends on the good of all, and that our capacity for love and good can direct our energies towards successful ecological outcomes. A Christian (or rather a Jesus ecological)ethic will go one step further – lead to living primarily with good of all as our goal, and will need us to sacrifice our own good in the pursuit of that greater good. He presents an Ethical Manifesto to support this argument.

is it time to discard ‘religion’ as a primitive stage of human development – to challenge human maturity and responsibility for all of life and walk softly on the earth rather than have dominion over it? This calls for a new way to be Church. When Paul wrote to various churches that he had founded in Asia Minor, he was addressing the small Christian communities or fellowships in each place – not referring to a building or an institution. The Church should be like these small communities – places for discussion about ethical ecology – the radical ethic of Jesus.

But we are still trapped in Platonic thinking if we think that goodness, truth and love are discreet realities, separate from our thoughts and actions. At the same time Cosmology as a philosophy has outlived its usefulness – so how do we understand the meaning of life? For John Gunson it is through psychology, ethics and above all science.

And lest we fall into the trap of ‘resting’ in our search for understanding – Gunson manages to put under critical focus the major influential writers of this era and none are free from his assertion that they are individually faulty in their claims.

We are a people of new scientific thinking and should give greater credence to our own abilities to interpret the meaning of life.

Highly recommended reading.

Paul Inglis 5th November 2018.

This book is available in print (Morning Star Publishing)  and e-copy (Amazon Australia Kindle)

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Book Review: Two Elephants in the Room by John Bodycomb

Two Elephants in the Room: Evolving Christianity and Leadership, John Bodycomb, 2018, Spectrum Publications Pty Ltd, Richmond, Victoria.

John Bodycomb clearly has a long experience at the workface of the church and its ministry. His sociological, teaching and ministry skills are obvious in this short thesis on the two most significant elements challenging organised religion. He also demonstrates a wonderful sense of humour that ‘thinking’ readers will enjoy. He needs to be heard and responded to.
The two elephants:
• The future of organised religion in western society, and
• The future of professional ministry
are apparent at a time in Australia when the consensus is moving towards ‘no religion’ in their lives. Indifference to organised religion is steadily increasing. At the same time many young people still believe there is more to life than the material and view being ‘spiritual’ with its multiple meanings as a transcendent dimension that takes them to a higher experience of life.

Drawing on Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs and motivation research, he explains why some people stay with the church and that here is a key element for church leaders to note when looking for answers to how to grow the church. What has intrinsic worth in our lives today is very different from that of previous generations. This includes ‘ethical axioms’ that no longer produce this ‘transcendence’. Nevertheless, Bodycomb is able to identify real benefits to people engaging with organised religion. He offers 12 fascinating ‘benefits’ that effective churches demonstrate, including:
• Developing proficiency in relating socially – getting along with others
• An aid to an effective ‘inner gyroscope’ – enabling one to preserve a placid interior, undisturbed by outside buffeting
• Bringing ‘inklings’ of transcendence through music, philosophy and theology.

But Bodycomb emphasizes that the intangible benefits for ‘living life to the full’, in the sense of Jesus’ teaching, is dependent on the inventiveness of the local church. The church needs to be a thinking institution. He sees the greatest risk to the church is its tendency to discourage thinking. Theology needs to be re-invented, re-defined. ‘God talk’ has been manufactured. Doctrines need to undergo close critical deconstruction and theological colleges need to open up this discourse and encourage it.

Whilst Bodycomb has seen the expiration of the church as we know it, he insists that the great ‘existential’ questions will still exercise minds e.g. Is there anything to describe as ‘transcendence’ beyond what we can physically see? “Is G-O-D a fantasy or …. a reality?” What is G-O-D? Like Spong, Bodycomb sees the imperatives for change – without evolution we will witness extinction of organised religion. Evolution has been going on since the European Renaissance and the Reformation, but change has always been met with counter movements to restore the ‘authority’ of the church. This is no longer working. Consequences of massive socio-cultural changes are no longer able to be stopped. The ‘back to orthodoxy’ movement is alive but now only impacting on a slim minority.

Bodycomb identifies the key adaptive responses as cerebral and visceral with the former being adopted by ‘progressives’ and the latter by those who are still holding onto unquestioning fundamentalism. He has a long history of asking questions about theological education and has challenged the theological colleges with learning lessons from Tillich and others who knew the value of pastoral ministry over having the ‘right’ theology. His ideas about church today should be heard and acted on. What he says makes so much sense and, if acted on, would re-connect the church with the secular world. His 10 disincentives and 10 incentives to consider when going into ministry today are critical lessons to all church teachers and ministry mentors. His model for moving ministry into a sphere of relating to the world and its pressing needs stands as a credible guide that should be informing training programs.

This thesis could have been titled – Asking the Right Questions about the Church and its Leadership. It has convinced me that the church enterprise needs urgently to move from its ‘maintenance’ model to an urgent energetic response to a world that needs help with massive life-threatening problems.

The author: Rev. Dr John Bodycomb is a Melbourne-based minister of the Uniting Church in Australia. He retired in 1996 after forty years as parish minister, Christian educator, University Ecumenical Chaplain and former head of the Uniting Church’s Theological Hall in Melbourne. He was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for his promotion of religious freedom and to fostering ecumenism.

Reviewer: Dr Paul Inglis, 8th October 2018
Retired UCA Community Minister
Retired Academic, QUT Faculty of Education
CEO UC Forum – https://ucforum.unitingchurch.org.au

Where to purchase: Spectrum Publications

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Book review: A World of Difference by Stratford and McWilliam

A World of Difference: Ways of Being-in-the-World

Authors: Walter Stratford & Linda McWilliam

Published by: Morning Star Publishing

Linda is an Anglican priest and the Director for Mission for Anglicare, southern Queensland who holds a Bachelor of Theology (honours) and a Master of Counselling from ACU.

Walter is a retired Uniting Church minister who has a number of degrees and completed a PhD in 2012.

How I wish this book had been available to me twenty years ago!

The authors demonstrate how ‘meaning’ is found when philosophy meets history, culture, ethnography and religion. It is also about a human search for truth and justice that is a both analytical and practical. It is a useful analysis of ‘spirit’ and ‘soul’ concepts illustrating how spirit and soul have captured the minds of many over millennia. The authors manage to separate these from long standing claims of the church and its teachings on eternity. They place the many notions of ‘being’ and ‘life’ in the lived experience drawing on Martin Heidegger’s sociological interpretation of ‘being-in-the-world’.

The authors have obviously experienced life at close quarters, both professionally and privately. This shows in the way they mesh spirituality with our complex social values as a counter to all the conflicting values of secular society and in a way that honours all life within creation. This is done against a context of claims on the ‘right’ faith perspective and the destructive path of fundamentalism and the way the latter has dismembered societies and produced a great movement of refugees across the world.

Our woeful history of religion that inevitably attempts to create God in the image of the practitioner is a persistent problem for authentic spirituality. But “making spirituality visible can be considered as contained in compassion, justice, kindness, honesty, and a commitment to peace”.

This is very much a commentary on today’s world of religion, politics and social mores. It is not about a spirituality that hides from the realities of a world in trouble – it is responsible spirituality finding value in self rather than in soul-less and mechanistic structures, and liberated from all restraints.

Meaning is found in covenants in all walks of life – marriage, community capacity building, with the environment and those sourced from Abrahamic traditions. These are all vulnerable and subject to human frailty, greed and power seeking. We are at a time in earth’s history when religious and political claims that assert value over each other are futile. The imperative of the future of humanity obviously depends on a universal covenant with the earth. This is a spiritual exercise.

Central to the human condition and influencing everyone is suffering in the world. This is not simply physical but existential as it challenges our search for meaning in events that affect us daily. For many, it goes beyond physical to impacting psychological and spiritual trauma. Guilt, depression, loss of hope, failure to discern any moral compass, loneliness, disconnection and hardening of hearts call for acknowledgement that all of this needs to be addressed spiritually. Sadly, for many ‘suffering’ is where they know ‘meaning’.

Attachment, Solitude and Community are closely examined as remarkable sources of spiritual energy. Grace and Presence (religious and secular) are viewed as part of human life and interactions, and Prayer is given a lot of attention. The latter is a contentious subject and all its facets and uses are explored and the question raised – What if the faithful lived the prayers rather than say them? What might happen?

Story as an essential part of all cultures helps in the search for meaning from the past and into the future. It is also a vehicle for increasing well-being. Finally, Hospitality, grounded in a sense of Spirit presence provides a framework for putting life meaning into practice. A powerful commentary on how all of this is a gateway to a world of difference I will leave for the reader to discover along with much I have not covered.

Concluding comments:

This discourse needs to continue beyond the book into conversations amongst groups. The impact of these conversations must be felt widely within the religious and secular communities. I look forward to seeing that happen.

Paul Inglis 18th August 2018.

Where to purchase this book: Morning Star Publishing $29.95 plus postage and from  Book Depository $30.95 delivered free from UK.

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Book Review: Australia Re-imagined by Hugh Mackay

Australia re-imagined: towards a more compassionate, less anxious society

by Hugh Mackay

The author: Hugh Mackay is a social researcher and best selling writer. This is his 19th book. He has examined many aspects of Australian life over six decades. He has been awarded honorary doctorates from five Australian universities and in 2015 was appointed an Officer of the Order of Austraia.

Among many appointments, he has been deputy chair of the Australian Council of the Arts, chair of trustees of Sydney Grammar and inaugural chair of the ACT government’s Community Inclusion Board. He is currently patron of the Asylum Seekers Centre.

This is a great resource reference for teachers, preachers, politicians, social commentators and most of all for thinking Australians who want this to be a great place to live and grow our children and grandchildren. I made great use of Chapter 7 – Religion’s noblest role: promoting compassion” in a sermon this morning.

At the outset he poses questions that are common, eg – Will my job be replaced by a robot? Is religion really on the way out? Why has politics become so annoying? Are gender distinctions becoming irrelevant? Will I be able to understand what my grandchildren are talking about? and so on.

He closes with a list of things we’d like to be able say about an ideal Australia – things we’d like others to say about us. The Reader is asked to tick those they agree with. eg

  • I want to live in a society where people respect each other, especially when they disagree, and most especially when they disagree on politics or religion.
  • I want to live in a society where we err on the side of generosity when it comes to our treatment of refugees; where we can rise to the moral challenge of dealing humanely with some of the world’s most desperate, vulnerable people who manage to make it to our shores by whatever means, and so on….

In between these bookends he deals comprehensively with the culture of busyness, diversity and choosing our words carefully; empathy and education; a better world starting in our own street; gender wars; religion; politics, choice as threat to public education; the real state of the nation and finally the best side of our profile – big hearts and open minds.

This is a fully indexed text with a large reference list. I think it should be part of the resources of every thinking Australian and especially those who want to remain relevant to their audiences (in the pews or classrooms). For ordinary Australians like myself, it has huge value in making me aware of the context and influences on my life and I can confidently talk to intelligent friends and hold their attention!

Available from bookshops and online, just search for Australia Re-imagined. More information about Hugh Mackay and his other books can be sourced from his publishers Pan Macmillan.

Paul Inglis 12th August 2018

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New from Rex Hunt – Seasons and Self

Seasons and Self: Discourses on being ‘At Home’ in Nature, Rex A. E. Hunt

Rex’s latest publication is another handy resource as well as a good read.  John Cranmer also has eleven original poems in the book. Two reviewers have this to say:

Michael Morwood
“For progressive religious thinkers Rex Hunt provides ground on which to stand as they explore the often-asked question, “Where do we go from here?” This book will delight and inspire”
(Michael Morwood. Author of It’s Time. Challenges to the Doctrine of the Faith.”
Noel Preston
“This collection is a timely reminder to the religious that an ecological theology is now a necessity while, to those who eschew religion, justifiably in many instances, this book asserts that deep ecological consciousness is essentially spiritual.
The result is a valuable, accessible resource for both progressive preachers and activists who know that there is no other vocation more important than the defence of life on Earth”
(Rev Dr Noel Preston, AM. Adjunct Professor in Applied Ethics, Griffith University, member of the Australian Earth Charter Committee, and author of Ethics With or Without God)
John Cranmer comments:

Seasons and Self is a courageous exploration into religious naturalism – sometimes called the ‘forgotten alternative’ – as well as contemporary critical biblical studies by one of Australia’s leading progressives, Rex A. E. Hunt. A self-professed religious naturalist, progressive liturgist, and social ecologist., he belongs squarely within a post-liberal/ ‘progressive’ orientation.

The author acknowledges the principle attributed to the Brazilian theologian Rubem Alves: “I am not after conclusions… Conclusions are meant to shut… Every conclusion brings the thought process to a halt”.  The present collection is an invitation to readers to become curious and excited about what they read, and to explore further – beyond the tyranny of clear and distinct ideas! The author is concerned about ‘likelihoods’ and being ‘open-ended’ rather than closing any discussion with persuasion by argument. The intent is to strike a chord rather than ‘shoehorning’ something – ideas, answers, doctrine, correct belief – into people, often challenging the parochial and limited claims of traditional religions, or so-called pious biblical argument based on a proof-text zeal.

[Picture of Rex with Joe Bessler at the book launch last week]

While both science and progressive religion are to the fore in the topics and chapters of the collection of sermons, addresses and keynote presentations, there is also a strong hint of the poetic – all evoking a sense of awe and wonder at nature and the natural, rather than the supernatural. A radical theo-eco-logy! Themes addressed include evolution, earth, cosmos, food and wisdom, as well as Autumn, children, celebration and humour. All grounded in the Ordinary… in the hope that, collectively, they will stir one’s own imagination.

“Nature and naturalism are for us today the main game for any progressive spirituality,” writes the author. “We are fully linked with our surroundings in time, space, matter/energy, and causality, and where the metaphor of ‘web’ is used to describe this interrelatedness – we create the web and the web creates us…” 

How to get a copy:  Go to Coventry Press, Melbourne. $34.95 + p/p

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Book Review: How to Read the Bible and Still be a Christian

How to Read the Bible and Still be a Christian

By John Dominic Crossan

The Bible teaches us how to be kind and loving people. Right? Those of us brought up from childhood as churchgoers and people of Christian faith, take this for granted. Millions upon millions of Bibles are given away or sold at concession prices every year by such institutions as the Bible Societies, and Gideon’s.

The assumption is that if only people would read the Bible they will become good people by following the examples set by the stories within.

But is this necessarily so? John Dominic Crossan suggests that we read the Bible in “full”. If we do this we find that the scriptures send very mixed messages indeed. This applies right from Genesis to Revelation. What would a perceptive reader coming in objectively to read the Bible without a background of religious faith find? In taking the writing at face value she would find that the non-violence proclaimed initially as the characteristic of God and Jesus initially, falls away in due course to recourse to power and aggression.

Crossan sees this pattern occurring from the stories of the Garden of Eden, right through the period of the kings and prophets to the gospels and on to the writings attributed to Paul.

He explains this duality through the changing context (his preferred term for this is “matrix”) of the times at which the various books of the bible came to be written. Through my 70 years or so of Bible study I was aware of this and allowed for it, but John Crossan brings new emphasis and new clarity. His recognised reputation as arguably the most acclaimed biblical scholar of this generation comes through in his historical referencing. The bonus is that in this instance, at least, his writing is very readable.

Crossan’s description and analysis of the setting of the Jesus story and the writings of Paul in that first turbulent century of the Common Era would be as clear as any I have studied. It matches well other insights I have had recently into the link between, the developing Christian theology of that period, Greek philosophical thought and the divine political status of the Roman emperor.

Crossan describes the see-sawing in Biblical thrust as between distributive justice (the loving side of God and Jesus) and retributive justice (the violent, vengeful side of God and Jesus). He makes a big thing of the Bible and its story about justice. Some would argue that justice requires vengeance – we see this in the newspapers and TV every day.

The author, however, makes this plea.

“Justice is the body of love and love is the soul of justice…We have separated what cannot be separated if each term is to retain its full power. Justice without love may end in brutality, but love without justice must end in banality. Love empowers justice and justice embodies love. Keep both or get neither”

So let us read the Bible in full. But let us indeed be selective in what we take from it, In observing that swing between goodwill and violence to be found there, may we extract, from the context, the message of justice with love. The responsibility to do so lies within our personal faith convictions as well as with the decision-making councils of our Uniting Church.

A couple of footnotes:

  1. For The Love of God – How the Church is Better and Worse than you ever imagined”. – There has been some recognition recently of the mixed messages on violence promoted by Christians over the centuries in this informative documentary produced this year (2018) by the Centre of Public Christianity. It is recommended viewing.
  2. Some, like me, would initially, reject the description of Jesus in the Bible as violent and vengeful. For those claiming to be “Biblical Christians”, however, John Crossan and I would recommend that you read the Book of Revelation in full.

Rodney Eivers, July 2018

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Book Review: Deep Work – spiritual practice in our workday world

Thanks to subscriber to the UCFORUM, Professor Peter Fensham for this review:

Available from Mediacom.

Deep Work: Spiritual Practice in our Workday World: Jenny Tymms, MediaCom Education, Inc.

This book is addressed to all those who find it hard to giving attention to their inner life in the face of the expanding demands of our everyday lives during the week. The author, still in employment, has persons like her very much in mind, but the pressures and complexities of modern society make many others feel concerned about the problem of holding the spiritual and everyday life together.

The book has an interesting layered structure. The first layer is set in the eight-fold rhythm of a day beginning with Waking Up, Heading Out, Showing Up, Working, Taking Time Out, Toiling, Finishing Up and Heading Home, and Resting and Recreating. Its other layer provides five sub-themes of each of these eight stages, and gives a variety to them that mirrors the differences the days of many working and everyday weeks can have.

It was pleased to see that each of the sub-themes is introduced by both a short extract from the secular and more contemporary literature, juxtaposed with a relevant biblical piece. This use of the secular spiritual writing can open up what follows to the majority of today’s seeking persons who are not as familiar with the Bible as a resource as are regular church goers.

At the end of each sub-theme a practice is suggested, so the book introduces forty practices in all. These practices are ‘intentional disciplines that foster and nourish our desire for spiritual depth. They shape us into people who joyfully participate in God’s compassionate and justice making work in the world.’ Among them I found some that fitted my limited understanding of spiritual practice, and a few that I fairly regularly do. Many more of the practices are actions I haven’t thought of in spiritual terms, but can see would be worth a try.

The book is available from www.mediacom.org.au

Professor Peter Fensham  19th June 2018.

Note: Jenny introduces her book with:

I believe there is a growing thirst in our western contemporary culture for depth, purpose and meaning in our lives. It feels like our world is speeding up. Economic pressures are leading to workloads that are ever-increasing. Our capacity to attend to our inner lives weakens in the face of expanding external demands. We often feel either wound up or worn out. Yet we are aware of our alienation (although sometimes only dimly) even in the midst of our frantic busyness. We do sense our dis-ease.

Rev Jenny Tymms currently works for the Uniting Church in Queensland as a member of the mission team.

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