Monday, December 31, 2007


It's holiday-time, when each of us can most usefully relax with the book-gifts our family have bestowed on us at Christmas. Thanks Karen for another beauty!

Here's a good summary, from The Observer

Sunday January 22, 2006
The Observer

The Secret River
by Kate Grenville

Following The Idea of Perfection was always going to be a tough call. Five years on from her Orange Prize-winning bestseller about middle-aged love in the Outback, Kate Grenville has turned to something quite different: historical fiction and a story about convict settlement.

This is a narrative whose outlines we know already: convicts transported to Sydney, eventually pardoned, encouraged to settle what seemed to be an empty continent. They didn't understand, and wouldn't have cared, that the land they were occupying was sacred to the mysterious, dark-skinned people who appeared and disappeared from the forests and seemed to them no more than naked savages.

The William Thornhill born in the opening pages is clearly marked out for poverty, suffering, degradation and criminality. We've been reading this story at least since Dickens...

It does, though, turn out to be worth it. There isn't much underlying moral ambiguity in this book: the costs of settlement are appalling, which makes Thornhill its villain, even while he carries its sympathetic weight. Grenville is particularly good on inarticulate love, and Thornhill's relationship with his wife, Sal, civilises him, makes him a good man and ensures that the reader is on his side. As husband, father and hard-working, decent man, he is also the book's hero.

Once freed, Thornhill falls in love with a point of land up the Hawkesbury River with the visceral desire for ownership of someone who has never been allowed to own anything. He dreams of his own hundred acres, of dignity and entitlement. It never crosses his mind, since the land is not settled, that it could already be owned. Grenville writes exactingly and with passion about the Australian landscape: the bright light, the skinny, grey-green trees that refuse to shed their leaves, the cliffs that tumble into the river through snaking mangroves. Thornhill recognises that this is a landscape that can remake a man.

She is also wonderful on the ex-cons who settle the river, left to get on with things by the authorities. Some, miraculously, find ways to accommodate themselves with the Aborigines, despite their isolation, fear and brutal pasts. Gradually, Thornhill starts faintly to appreciate that the Aborigines most remind him of the gentry back home. They don't appear to work for their food: they spend their days creating art, telling stories, making their babies laugh. And then he has to make a decision. This is where the sense that the book is heading somewhere familiar really works for Grenville; she plays throughout on a threat of impending disaster. It's difficult to read this novel without a heavy heart, because it's obvious that not everything can possibly work out.

Violence is erupting along the river, but a way opens up for Will to keep his wife and children safe and hold on to everything he has worked for. All it would take would be to stomach the necessary bloody, terrible, knowing violence. The Secret River is a sad book, beautifully written and, at times, almost unbearable with the weight of loss, competing distresses and the impossibility of making amends.


This book is a commentary on the universal problem of 'ethnophobia' - fear of the other. There are settlers who are cruel, others kind; the same with aborigines. And when violence spirals into more violence, we have a horrific outcome. Those with the most lethal toys (guns) win. An important book.

Rowland Croucher

December 2007


I've just finished reading The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom (Little, Brown & Time Warner Paperbacks 25 September 2003) - a Christmas present (thanks Karen).

Here's part of the current (December 2007) Wikipedia article on it:

The Five People You Meet in Heaven is a novel by Mitch Albom, published in 2003. A television movie of the same name was broadcast by ABC in 2004, starring Jon Voight as the main character, Eddie.

Introduction and Death

Eddie is walking around Ruby Pier, where he works as a maintenance man, and meets a little girl. He makes her a bunny out of pipe cleaners, as he does for other kids at the Pier. Later, Freddy's Free Fall (a ride) breaks down, and the little girl is under it. Eddie dives under the ride to try and save her, but he dies.

First Person in Heaven

The first man Eddie meets in Heaven is the "Blue Man." Eddie was the cause of this man's death. At a young age, a baseball was thrown, and passed in front of the Blue Man's car. When Eddie, as a child, went to get the ball, he was almost hit by the Blue Man driving the car. The Blue Man was incredibly nervous for minutes afterwards and finally hits a truck, the damage of which causes a fatal heart attack.

Second Person in Heaven

The second lesson takes place within the Philippine jungle. The second person Eddie meets is his old captain from the war. The captain teaches Eddie the lesson of sacrifice, where when we sacrifice something we gain something too. The Captain sacrificed Eddie's leg, he shot it. That is why he has the limp. He was trying to save Eddie from walking in a fire. When they tried to get Eddie to a medical unit, the Captain went to go check out to see if the path was safe, and blew up from a mine. In the case of Eddie, he was shot in the leg which caused irreparable damage and crippled him for the rest of his life. However, consequentially, he was given the chance to continue with his life.

"You didn't get it. Sacrifice is a part of life. It's supposed to be. It's not something to regret. It's something to aspire to. Little sacrifices. Big sacrifices..."

Third Person in Heaven

After The Captain is gone, everything around him changes again, and now he is in a snow mountain. He starts to walk until he arrives at a restaurant where he sees his father. The writer describes the relationship Eddie had with his father since his childhood until Eddie’s father's death. Eddie meets a lady named Ruby. She is the wife of the owner of the Ruby Pier.That is where the "ruby" in Ruby Pier comes from. She is the third person he meets in heaven and she tells him the truth about his father. He died fighting a disease. Eddie's Mother blamed herself for not calling the doctor in time, but Eddie knew it was his drunken father's fault. With this, she speaks about loyalty the human beings must have with people who have been considerable with them. She teaches him the third lesson: Forgiveness. Eddie must forgive his father and does not feel more rage and resentment towards him.

"Learn this from me. Holding anger is a poison. It eats you from inside. We think that hatred is the weapon that attacks the person who harmed us. But hatred is a curved blade. And the harm we do, we do to ourselves.

Fourth Person in Heaven

The fourth person Eddie meets in heaven is his wife: Marguerite. She has chosen a wedding place to stay in heaven. Eddie meets her being young as she was when they got married. She teaches him the fourth lesson: Love does not have an end. When people die, love takes a different form, that’s all. To be left out in the dark.

"Lost love is still love, Eddie. It takes a different form, that's all. You can't see their smile or bring them food or tousle their hair or move them around a dance floor. But when those senses weaken, another heightens. Memory, memory becomes your partner. You nurture it. You hold it. You dance with it. Life has to end," she said. "Love doesn't."

Fifth Person in Heaven

The fifth person Eddie meets in heaven is a small Philippine girl whose name is Tala (means 'star' in Tagalog). Tala is described as being approximately five or six years old with a cinnamon complexion and hair the color of dark plum. Eddie meets Tala in an idyllic stream location where other young children are playing in a stream. It is thought that this nook of heaven is for the children whose memories are so small that an idea of bliss hasn't had the chance to form in their imaginations yet. Tala teaches Eddie that everyone has a purpose to life that not only affects their own lives but unknowingly touches the lives of others. Tala was the person that brought Eddie to heaven, but also died in the shed that Eddie lit afire, proving that Eddie really did see something in the shed. She also tells him that he saved the girl from the falling amusement park ride.

"I was sad because I didn't do anything with my life. I was nothing. I accomplished nothing. I felt like I wasn't supposed to be there." Tala plucked the pipe cleaner dog from the water. "Supposed to be there," She said. "Where? At Ruby pier?" She nodded. "Fixing rides? That was my existence?" He blew a deep breath. "Why?" She tilted her head as if it were obvious. "Children," She said. "You keep them safe. You make good for me."


The only comment I'd make, as a Christian, is that this book portrays a creative approach to heaven's being a 'catch-up' with all the people with whom we've interacted during this life. It will be an interesting... I was nearly going to say... time!

Rowland Croucher

Wednesday, December 26, 2007


Graham Tomlin 'The Seven Deadly Sins: and How to Overcome Them' (Lion 2007) and Andrew Cameron & Brian Rosner ed., 'Still Deadly: Ancient Cures for the 7 Sins' (Aquila Press, 2007).

Medieval people were far more horrified by their sins than we are. Sin meant breaking the rules: God's rules, with God being both Lawgiver and Judge. Today's God is more benign, so the seven deadly sins are basically 'seven habits of highly destructive people'. Augustine's idea of 'original sin' - an inbuilt bias towards sin - doesn't sit well with modern notions of freedom. The 'seven deadly sins' emerged in the middle of the first millennium after Christ as a useful check-list to measure goodness or virtue.

Here's a summary of Tomlin's ideas. His book is excellent, modern (even sometimes 'with-it'!), devotionally useful, and scholarly. Tomlin is Principal of St Paul's Theological Centre at Holy Trinity Brompton, London (the church which produced the Alpha courses). Tomlin was previously a member of Oxford University's faculty of theology...


PRIDE is the worst sin, according to most traditional Christian thinkers (from Augustine and Aquinas to G.K. Chesterton and C.S.Lewis). It's the 'primal' sin, our wanting to be independent of God's rules: expressed brilliantly by Satan in Milton's Paradise Lost: 'Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.' Pride looks after 'number one': it is competitive, not wanting to give first place to anyone else. The opposite of pride is humility: the virtue that helps us become more like our humble, self-giving God. How? Through confession, whereby God and another hears our sins and faults and offers grace; and through service to others: 'thinking less about yourself, rather than thinking less of yourself.'

ENVY is the one sin which is not fun at all. It is 'sadness at the happiness of another' (Aquinas). Although no one wants to be renowned for their envy, in our meritocratic culture it is the bait in every advertisement. 'We are caught in a culture that hates envy, yet incites it mercilessly.' Mark Twain was wise: 'We will do many things to get ourselves loved; we will do anything to get ourselves envied.' Ancient wisdom teaches us that happiness consists not in getting what we want, but in wanting what we get. The first murder in the Bible (of Abel by Cain) was driven by envy. How shall we deal with it? First, change the price-tags: things may not what be what they seem. Second, learn to admire what others have without wanting it (Salieri both adored and detested Mozart's genius). Life and your talents are gifts: to be given back to the community. If you have God, you have everything.

ANGER can be an appropriate response to cruelty or injustice, but, as Seneca said, is is 'an acid which can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.' God gets angry at evil, and therefore, as William Willimon says, paradoxically, because he does, we don't have to. Solving problems via anger almost always does more harm than good - often creating an escalating cycle of bitterness. Righteous anger - our anger against evil - can quickly turn into a desire for vengeance. Like most sins anger takes something good - a proper hatred of evil and injustice - and twists it into something destructive. The heart of the Christian approach: it's God's prerogative to exercise wrath. Although our anger might do some good, God alone can sustain righteous anger that will truly sort things out. Part of 'anger management' is to practise silence, so that we do not say things we might later regret.

GLUTTONY headed the list of 7 deadly sins in the 4th century. Gluttony is an inordinate obsession with food, drink, or plain consumption. It's to food what lust is to sex: getting something good out of proportion. Being fat is Very Bad in a celebrity-obsessed culture, so obsessive dieting can be as gluttonous as over-eating. (Half the world lives on less than a dollar a day: each year 1.7 million children die from hunger-related diseases). How are we healed from eating disorders? The crucial first step, as AA teaches, is to hand over control. Traditionally Christians have emphasized not dieting, but the age-old rhythm of fasting and feasting: Easter and Christmas are preceded by the fasts of Lent and Advent - ensuring that we retain control of our appetites rather than being controlled by them.

LUST is not simply sexual desire: it's disordered desire - when sex is the dominating force in a relationship. Sex isn't simply physical: what we do with our bodies affects our souls/hearts/minds. 'It's not so much picking an apple off a tree as disturbing the roots'. Lust is 'the craving for salt of someone dying of thirst' (Buechner). The difference between looking and looking lustfully is about five seconds! We might pretend that we are serious about wanting someone else when we only really want part of them. Extra-marital sex is 'Lying in bed'! How is lust overcome? Not, as the Catholic Church has sometimes taught, by eliminating sexual desire altogether, but, with God's help, relating to others as whole persons.

GREED. The consumer culture is driven by a 'greed-is-good' mentality. Donald Trump put it candidly: 'The point is that you can't be too greedy.' It's not quite the same as self-interest, which, wrote Adam Smith, is the responsibility to look after ourselves and those who depend on us. And healthy ambition spurs us on to greater achievements. The problem is when self-interest impinges on the interests of others. An economy driven by consumption, with governments promised greater growth and prosperity, will inevitably lead to a depletion of the world's resources. 'Over the past 550 million years there have been five major extinctions of species. Who is to say that we might not be next?' We have probably passed the point of no return on global warming. God has provided good things for our enjoyment, but greed is destructive - both of ourselves and of society. A sabbath is a good antidote to greed: it is a regular reminder that the ultimate purpose of life is not to accumulate 'stuff'. But the best counterpart to greed is not poverty (the poor can be avaricious), but generosity. Ultimately we do not own anything: everything is a gift. So let us live simply, so that others can simply live.

SLOTH is the hardest of the 7 sins to define. It's not simply laziness. The old Latin idea of accidia is sometimes translated 'spiritual weariness' or 'despair': essentially 'giving up on life'. Aquinas described sloth as 'spiritual boredom'. Augustine says of the human race, 'They choose to look for happiness not in you, but in what you have created'. So sloth is losing our appetite for God, failing to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength. It is substituting something else for God - even religious things like liturgies, church music or theological ideas. Simply enjoying/loving God is an acquired taste. The opposite of love is not hate, but indifference.


Don't bother buying the 'Still Deadly' book. It's too 'Sydney Anglican' - somewhat desiccated, and heady, replete with many Bible texts and evangelical concepts. It has 'in-group' language (ex-Sydney Anglicans will know what I mean), but is quite scholarly, centring the essays by well-known Anglicans like Peter Jensen, Graham Cole, Gordon Preece etc. around the writings of Luther, Augustine, Basil of Caesarea, Aquinas, Reinhold Niebuhr and Calvin. It's actually a small feschrift for Michael Hill, formerly lecturer in ethics and vice-principal of Sydney's Moore Theological College. Its preface says 'Although you've picked up this book because it seemed interesting, we hope you'll become really, really bored by it... We hope you'll become bored witless by the pathetic pointlessness of [these 7 sins].' (Sounds like undergrad evangelicese preachy language, eh?). I was quite bored: but there are a few gems of ideas here, which I'll put on to the John Mark Ministries website some time (use the indexes)...

Rowland Croucher

December 2007

Copies available from Ridley Melbourne Bookshop -

Sunday, December 23, 2007


Review: Transfiguration: A Meditation on Transforming Ourselves and Our World, by John Dear (Doubleday 2007)

Jesuit priest, retreat leader, writer and peace activist John Dear is running with the baton handed on by the Berrigan Brothers. (He spent at least one session in jail with one of them). Which means that he's prepared to do off-the-wall protests to get the attention of the Powers, engaging in nonviolent protests against war, the arms race, and human rights violations. Like Jesus, he says, we are to be non-violent, but this does not mean we are passive.

John Dear has served as the executive director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an interfaith peace organization, and was a Red Cross coordinator of chaplains at the Family Assistance Center in New York City after the September 11, 2001, attacks. He has traveled to the world’s war zones on missions of peace and has been imprisoned repeatedly for civil disobedience in anti-war protests.

In this, the latest of his 15 or 16 books, he offers this basic message: we are to follow Jesus in terms of cultivating peace within, and peace in our world. Actually the journey has three parts - an inner journey, a public journey, and a journey for all humanity. The meditation is broken into five parts - walking in the footsteps of Jesus, going up the mountain with Jesus, recognizing the transfigured Christ in our midst, going down the mountain to the cross, and fulfilling our mission of transfiguration nonviolence in a culture of violence and war. The key? Loving ourselves as we are, diffusing the hatred we might feel towards others, and consciously embracing a choice to live in peace.

In this book John Dear explores of the many meanings in the Gospel story of Jesus' transfiguration (Matthew 17: 1-8). As we travel with Jesus, we too combine a mystical journey within with a life of healing the wounds of the world:

'To be listeners, we have to prepare ourselves to receive the Word, to let it settle in and take root in our hearts. As we become people of contemplative listening, we eventually notice every word that Jesus says, and we try to build our lives on his message, word by word, until we live and breathe his teachings.'

Contemplation is not the prayer of the Pharisees - words, words, words. It is resting in the presence of God and listening to what God is telling us. Action without contemplation is futile.

Not everyone will be convinced by John Dear's approach (unless they already agree with him :-). For example, this, from the Publisher's Weekly: 'Dear also includes helpful suggestions on spiritual practices that lead to embracing nonviolence, as well as questions for individual contemplation or group discussion. Like many who are passionate about their subject, Dear's sense that he absolutely knows God's will is daunting at times. He also stretches some of the biblical texts, arguing, for instance, that Moses and Elijah appear at the Transfiguration specifically to affirm Jesus' call to nonviolence. Dear is much to be admired for his persistence in the call for peace and nonviolence, a mission for which he has been willing to go to prison, and those who already share the author's views will find this book inspiring. Those who do not will probably go away unconvinced that the account of the Transfiguration makes his case.'

Whatever else he is, John Dear is authentic: he lives what he writes. He reminds you of St. Francis, who also sided with the poor, the outcasts, the 'little people'. John Dear writes: "To follow Jesus on the path of transfiguring nonviolence, we have to leave our lofty heights, comfortable safety, and private spiritualities and go with him down the mountain into the world of war, where we must confront the structures of violence head-on. The real discipleship journey begins now, after the Transfiguration, as we follow Jesus on the road to Jerusalem."

John Dear's Jesus 'was incapable of remaining silent in the face of social injustice, infidelity, violence and idolatry, and so he caused trouble wherever he went.'

"Here in this book is a clarion call for us to be engaged in the project for world peace and we ignore it at our peril." —Desmond Tutu, from the Foreword.

At the back of the book are some useful questions for reflection. Highly recommended.

Another modern prophet you might want to check out: Shane Claiborne

Review copy supplied by Ridley Melbourne Bookshop.

Rowland Croucher


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