God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment

James M. Hamilton Jr. – God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment: A Biblical Theology (Crossway, 2010)

What is the most fundamental purpose of the Bible? What unites all its parts and compelled all its writers? For Jim Hamilton the certain answer to these questions is the glory of God in salvation through judgement. This, he contends, is the centre of the Bible’s theology, its foundation and ultimate purpose. This theme is ‘broad enough to encompass all the data while also being focused enough to help readers of the Bible organize what they find in all the texts they read’ (p. 52).

His approach is straightforward: after introducing the theme he spends 500 pages going through the Scriptures book by book and for every one showing that the discernible theological centre is God’s glory in salvation through judgement. At his weakest this amounts to simply summarising the book and asserting his contention – which becomes an irritating refrain as it is used repeatedly on most pages. But at best Hamilton gives a clear introduction to each book, placing it within the biblical metanarrative (commonly overlooked in individual commentaries). He shows themes, motifs and extended metaphors that emerge through the Bible as a whole and helpfully explains how the New Testament typologically fulfils what has gone before. He highlights the structure and literary features of each book. And does all this with a very readable style, focusing on expounding the texts while debates in secondary scholarship are consigned to footnotes.

Hamilton does much to show God’s glory. In his hands, God’s judgement, which is often treated as something of an unfortunate necessity if not an embarrassment, becomes something beautiful and true. God’s abundant love, patience, and grace in remaining committed to the salvation of his people is expounded with sincere passion.

But this book must be judged according to its purpose, and in this it falls short. Hamilton forces his model uncomfortably onto the text and, ultimately, allows this agenda to trump the theology of the text. This is most blatant when dealing with books such as Ecclesiastes or Song of Songs, which have a unique purpose quite separate from salvation and judgement. Also, in order to conform the text to these themes, the terms become so broad that they lose much of their meaning. ‘Salvation’ comes to apply to anything good, ‘judgement’ to anything bad and ‘glory’ to the implicit presence of God in events. For example, he writes ‘Salvation through judgement for God’s glory manifests itself in this section of Proverbs [10:1-22:16] as judgement on wickedness is announced and righteous behaviour is commended’ (p. 297), the intimacy expressed in Song of Songs is equated with salvation, and, when commenting on the Gospel of Mark, he says, ‘[Jesus] brings salvation through judgement in his healing, which glorifies God, whose king comes with healing in his hands to reverse the effects of the curse’ (p. 360).

What Hamilton does succeed in showing is that God’s glory, salvation and judgement are three themes that pervade Scripture (though they do not consistently appear in the formulation he suggests). The corrective judgement seen through the OT (particularly in Judges and in the exile) and the atoning judgement of the Mosaic Law and the cross can be expressed as salvation through judgement and these are foundation to the Bible’s theology. But in focusing so totally on these expressions of God’s character and glory Hamilton inadvertently devalues the glory of God seen in acts of creation, revelation, love, and through human agency.

Early on Hamilton quotes Andreas Köstenberger: ‘The quest for a single centre of NT theology is misguided and should be replaced with an approach that recognises several themes as an integrated whole’ (p. 52, a perspective shared by Carson, Scobie et alia). Ultimately Hamilton’s failures prove Köstenberger and co. right.

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The Trinity

Tim Chester – Delighting in the Trinity: Just why are Father, Son and Spirit such good news? (Monarch Books, 2005)
Michael Reeves – The Good God: Enjoying Father, Son and Spirit (Paternoster, 2012)

It was by pure coincidence that I happened to read, in the space of a fortnight, two books on the doctrine of the Trinity. I had collected a stack of Tim Chester’s books and Delighting in the Trinity had made its way to the top. And I grabbed a copy of The Good God around the same time not because of its theme, but because a speaker I heard at a conference said it was the best book – by some margin – that he had read in the past few years. The speaker, as it happens, was Tim Chester.

The similarities between the books two extends far beyond their subject. They’re both pitched at the common layman, but both make a point of quoting and explaining the ideas of prominent theologians, such as Augustine, Calvin, Schleiermacher and Barth. Both begin by acknowledging that the doctrine of trinity is typically a point of confusion or discomfiture, but both – as their subtitles indicate – aim to demonstrate that it should be regarded as uplifting and central to the Christian faith. There are no perceivable differences in their theology, which probably accounts for Chester’s high praise. Even the format is similar, with both featuring excurses on points of history which can be skipped by those wanting a lighter read (I imagine Reeves was influence by Chester in this).

Chester takes the more systematic approach to the doctrine. Part One of Delighting in the Trinity looks at the biblical foundations for the trinity, Part Two provides a simplified but valuable overview of its historical developments, and Part Three examines the practical implications of the trinity.

Once again, I found Chester’s writing to be incredibly clear and helpful. He doesn’t shy away from any issues but gives a solid basis for why the Trinity is core to the Christian faith and practical and inspiring insight into why it is something worth delighting in. He clearly shows the Trinity – God as ‘an eternal community of loving relationships’ (p. 155) – to be the basis for our understanding of God’s love and the significance of the cross. He also shows how the simultaneous unity and plurality of God forms the basis for a Christian theology of community. ‘Because we are made in the image of the Trinity,’ Chester writes, ‘we become truly human the more we image the Trinity’ (p. 164). When applied to human community, the Trinity undermines both the unmitigated uniformity of totalitarianism and imperialism and the unmitigated plurality of individualism.

The praise Tim Chester gave to The Good God led me to expect that here I would find something at least as good. There certainly was much about it that I appreciated: the weaving in of history, theology and pastoral sensitivity; the infectious love for God’s character; the brevity; and the ability to read the Bible as literature rather than a collection of statement and draw on its symbols and narrative. But, as I finished the book and now looking back on it, I am left with fairly strong hesitations about it.

First among these is Reeves’ passionate negativity towards the concept of a single-person God. After extolling the goodness of the triune God he regularly turns towards what the alternative might look like. This God, he claims, would be the author of evil, selfish, belligerent, even petulant (e.g. pp. 39, 45, 52, 82). He also chooses to slate the view that God’s primary identity is as Creator or Ruler, rather than Father. He writes, ‘if that is how God is, my relationship with him can be little better than my relationship with any traffic cop…I can never really love the God who is essentially just the Ruler’ (p. 2).

The problem with these sentiments is that they can come uncomfortably close to applying to the God portrayed in the Bible and particularly the Old Testament. For Reeves, ‘The most foundational thing in God is…that he is Father. Again and again the Scripture equate the terms ‘God’ and ‘Father’’ (p. 5). But how can this account for the fact that common designation for God in the Bible is not ‘father’, but ‘Lord’? Can it, then, really be so awful to stress God’s identity as Ruler above that of Father?

Reeves also says that in order to understand who God is you must start with Jesus the Son and ‘when you don’t start with Jesus the Son, you end up with a different God who is not the Father’ (p. 19). Again this becomes problematic when we go to the Bible and see that God did not start by revealing himself in Jesus, but left that for millennia. Rather he revealed himself as Creator, Ruler and Father to mankind and, in particular, Israel.

It is unsurprising then to see eisegesis in Reeves’ interpretation of the Old Testament. For instance, he says, ‘in Genesis 1 the Word goes out in the power of the hovering Spirit so that on God’s Breath the Word is heard: ‘Let there be Light!’’ (p. 32). In How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, Fee and Stuart lay down as a basic rule of exegesis that ‘a text cannot mean what it never could have meant to its author or his or her readers’ (2003, p. 74). While it is entirely orthodox to say that God created the universe through Jesus (John 1:3), it is quite another thing to say that the writer of Genesis 1 referred to each of the three persons of the Trinity. While the text may give indications of the plurality of God –Chester’s description of it – its author and his or her readers could not have meant it to refer to the Trinity as this was quite clearly outside of their beliefs about God.

Chester likewise goes further than I would in seeing the distinct persons of the Trinity in the Old Testament, but he does at least provide a hermeneutical basis for it. He writes,
We must read the Old Testament on its own terms. We cannot disregard the intention of the biblical authors, still less can we read into it what we like. But Jesus Christ, the Word of God, provides the definitive hermeneutic of the Old Testament. He describes himself as the one to whom the Old Testament points (Luke 24:25-27, 44-47; John 5:39-40). The Old Testament explains who Jesus is and his coming explains the meaning of the Old Testament. This is not an alien hermeneutic imposed on the text.’ (pp. 42-43)

The doctrine of the Trinity is an area where I do gravitate towards mild heterodoxy, so it’s been helpful for me to learn from these two teachers who have so much joy in it. While I do feel that The Good God has significant limitations I could still recommend it. Although I don’t see why I would when Delighting in the Trinity is available.

What ho!

P.G. Wodehouse – What ho!: The Best of P.G. Wodehouse (Arrow, 2000)

We Raiters have always ranked ourselves among the most discriminating of readers. So when we describe a book as capital, it can be taken as just that. And that is precisely the term I might employ when describing the works of Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse.

It is not, I acknowledge, the writing most taxing upon a man’s intellect, however any fellow that might disdain it for just this reason would be, by universal admission, a nincompoop.

Wodehouse’s writing is hilarious and What ho! seems to be a fine place to sample it. After reading the introduction by Stephen Fry expectations are (justifiably) high as one launches into shorts of Wodehouse’s most celebrated creations. Among them are the utterly aloof Clarence, ninth earl of Emsworth, with his consuming passion for pigs, the forgivable Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge (pronounced Fanshawe Ewkridge), ever up against matters of life and death, such as the unwelcome visit of an aunt or a desperate shortage of tobacco, and Bertie Wooster, who lives off the unorthodox resourcefulness of his butler Jeeves and the honour of having won the Scripture memory prize in elementary school. There is a degree of commonality in all of Wodehouse’s leading men. They represent the peerage of the old land, who have been spared life’s darkest travails and are thereby free to be overwhelmed by rather less dramatic vexations. Never do we see any real harm done.

There is something refreshing in spending an hour or two in the world of Wodehouse. Here there be no dragons, nor malice of any sort. The Wodehouse prose is so sprightly, playful and downright fun that, were the plot to disappear entirely, one can hardly imagine missing it. I often regretted that I had no-one sitting beside me with whom to share its finest moments (though sometimes I would call my little sister in from the other room to be hear a particularly delightful paragraph). I prefer these snappy short stories to the full-length Wodehouse novel, which has a more settled feel.

Having given such praise, I think the best I can do for you is simply to redirect you immediately to a short excerpt of the Wodehouse genius: The Crime Wave at Blandings.

You Can Change

Tim Chester – You Can Change: God’s transforming power for our sinful behaviour and negative emotions (IVP/Crossway, 2008/2010)

Read the title and contents page and you could be forgiven for thinking You Can Change is a straight self-help book. But you would be wrong. In fact it might even be the opposite because it’s based on the contrary belief that no matter how hard you try, how confident you are, or what strategies you employ, you can’t change yourself.
But, obviously, that’s not where the story ends.

Chester writes,
We’re not sinners because we commit sinful acts. We commit sinful acts because we are sinners, born with a bias to sin, enslaved by our sinful desires. That’s why we can’t change ourselves simply by changing our behaviour. We need God to change us by renewing our hearts and giving us new desires’ (pp. 111-2).
You Can Change is a declaration that God has done just that – and because of this the Christian should not despair over their sinful behaviour and negative emotions. It sets out to convince the reader that they can’t and needn’t try to do what God has already done in Christ – defeat the power of sin.

What Chester offers the struggling Christian is not advice, but truth. We need to know who God is and understand why we often don’t want to change. Our problem, as he sees it, is not a failure to try, but a failure to trust. I thought he gave a great definition of sanctification:
I may affirm that God is sovereign (confessional faith), but still get anxious when I can’t control my life (functional disbelief). Sanctification is the progressive narrowing of the gap between confessional faith and functional faith’ (pp. 82-3).

There is no abstract theology in You Can Change. Chester asks the reader to identify a particular behaviour or emotion that they would like to change and at the end of each chapter are a series of reflection questions for applying what has been said (I like the intention with these, but didn’t really find them that helpful). Because of Chester’s writing style it does feel like he is talking at you, but he is clear, sincere and wise, so you can’t let that put you off.

A great feature of You Can Change (and all of Chester’s books) is the strong theology of community – still a rarity in conservative evangelicalism, and far removed from the individualism of self-help culture. He sees change as a community process as much as an individual process and community as the God-given context for change. So my recommendation is grab yourself a copy and, when you’re done, hand it on to someone else in your church.

Collected essays of the Unreliable N Raiter

When I have had the opportunity I have really enjoyed reading friend’s uni essays. Often they are on subjects I know next to nothing about, which is fascinating. They also show a side of the friend I may have never seen before. So, I thought I would share some of my uni essays – and hope some of you might do the same.

International Studies
Is neoliberal economic globalisation the solution to world poverty? (‘Global Politics’, 1st year) – a short essay from first year.

The Right to Self-Determination (‘Democracy, Terrorism, and Violence’, 3rd year) – looks at whether all nations (people groups) have a right to become independent states.

Literature
Charles Dickens on Childhood (‘Concepts of Childhood’, 2nd year) – it wasn’t a subject on Dickens, nor even on literature, but they gave us the option of writing our own essay question and I took all the liberty they would give me. This is a longer essay.

Jesus’ Parables (‘Backgrounds to English Literature’, 3rd year) – this is one of the essays I most enjoyed researching and writing. It’s basically an intro into the parable genre as used by Jesus.

Anthropology
Ethnographic Observation Exercise (‘Anthropology: Studying Human Diversity’, 1st year) – another short first year assignment. I wrote about my church’s youth group and gender and sport among adolescents.

History
Was the State of Israel a continuation of the Zionist movement? (‘A History of Israel’, 2nd year) – considers the ways Zionism changed over time before and after the creation of the State of Israel.

Education
Streaming (‘Integrating the Curriculum: Middle Years’, 4th year) – I thought it was great that my high school put us in classes based on our grades, but a lot of teachers I knew were really opposed to it. So I took this opportunity to look at some of the reasons for and against this kind of ability grouping.

How are socio-political changes reflected in the senior English curriculum between 1970 and 1993? (Research Project, 5th year) – Between 1970 and 1993 the senior English curriculum underwent a series of significant reforms. This paper considers how these were shaped by socio-political changes in Victoria. Sixty-one pages plus the same again in appendices. Gold star to anyone who gets through it all.

Canon Revisited

Michael J. Kruger – Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament (Crossway, 2012)

The evangelical church is the group that gives Scripture the most authority, and for this reason it is the group that stands to lose the most by getting the canon wrong. As an evangelical, I feel uneasy about how wide the margins of error on this issue seem to be. So, it was with great anticipation that I waited for the release of Canon Revisited, which sets out to prove that Christians can know that they have the right twenty-seven books in the New Testament canon.

The book is incredibly well researched – it has close to a thousand different citations in less than three hundred pages, drawing heavily on both theology and history. It begins by critiquing the competing models for determining canon, grouping them under three categories: (i) canon as community determined, (ii) canon as historically determined and (iii) canon as self-authenticating.

For the community determined models, a book is canonical because it has been received as such. This includes those coming from historical criticism who say that the Church invented the Bible centuries later; Roman Catholicism, which sees the Church authenticating Scripture; and an existential view that sees books ‘becoming’ canonical through the individual’s experience of them.

Historically determined models see the origins of the canonical books as their defining feature. The ‘canon-within-the-canon’ model affirms only those parts of Scripture which are historically verifiable while the ‘criteria-of-canonicity’ establishes Scripture through historical investigation into whether a book meets certain criteria (e.g. apostolicity, antiquity, orthodoxy, usage by the early church), a view held by many evangelicals (probably including myself).

While Kruger has numerous reasons for rejecting these models, the fundamental one is that they all place people as the arbiter over the canon, thus making them the ultimate authority rather than God. But in the self-authenticating model that he defends, the canon proves itself and imposes itself on the Church (rather than the Church choosing it). Rather than people deciding which writings to recognise as God’s word, God decides which people will recognise his word. He does this through giving the Holy Spirit, which attests to the truth of Scripture. Kruger draws this principle out of Jesus words, ‘My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me’ (John 10:27). He writes,
Put simply, canonical books are received by those who have the Holy Spirit in them. When people’s eyes are opened, they are struck by the divine qualities – beauty, harmony, efficacy – and recognise and embrace Scripture for what it is, the word of God. They realise that the voice of Scripture is the voice of the Shepherd.’ (p. 101)

However, Kruger does not want to separate the canon from his historical context, so he adds two additional attributes (drawn more from tradition than the Bible itself). These are emergence out of the ‘redemptive epoch’ of the apostles and providential acceptance by the Church. Put simply, Kruger would deny that a defence of Scripture can be mounted from a secular perspective; belief comes by the Spirit, whose work is seen in (i) the attributes of Scripture, (ii) the reception of Scripture and (iii) the writers of Scripture (see Figure 1).

The chapters on the corporate reception of canon are the strongest and the best reason for reading this book. Kruger makes a very clear case from history that the church, from its earliest stages, had a belief that some apostolic writings had authority equivalent to that of the Old Testament – this was not a later development. He argues this from the apostolic fathers, clues within the New Testament and, most impressively, from the manuscripts themselves.

While I got a lot out of the book, I did not find the overall argument compelling. Kruger does not hold himself to the same critical standards he uses when considering alternative views and many times his arguments came across as fallacious (e.g. canon is ‘the inevitable result of covenant‘) or simply silly (e.g. the unity of Bible is proven by its seven-part structure, seven being representative of completeness).

The most clear defeater to Kruger’s view is the disagreement between regenerate Christians in a Spirit-led church on the canon. If, as he claims, ‘the church’s reception of these books is a natural and inevitable outworking of the self-authenticating nature of Scripture’ (p. 106) the church’s reception should be perfectly consistent. But this is not what we find. The early church, which quickly and consistently settled on the core of the canon, for centuries regarded some books as disputed (as Kruger plainly shows). Even today, the Syrian Orthodox Church has only twenty-two books in its canon, the Roman Catholic Church recognises the deuterocanonical books, and some Protestants (following the likes of Martin Luther) continue to be unsure about certain New Testament books. Are none of these Jesus’ sheep? Kruger acknowledges this problem but simply responds that, ‘we should not expect to find perfect unity among the church, but…we should expect to find a corporate or covenantal unity – which is precisely what we do find’ (p. 108). But surely perfect unity (or something far closer to it) is what we should expect if the Spirit authenticates Scripture the way Kruger claims he does.

Rather, the unity that we do find is with regard to the ‘core’ of the New Testament. This is most compatible with the criteria-of-canonicity, which has varying degrees of certainty on the individual books. And it may not be such a problem to have some doubts about the canon. If the early church, two decades separated from the facts, could find space for ambiguity, then surely we who are separated by two millennia can allow for it. The ‘core’ books were and are secure, and the Christian faith is clearly established sufficiently within them. This is not to question to orthodoxy of those books outside the core, but recognises that a fallible church may, at times, need to be corrected.

A Praying Life

Paul Miller – A Praying Life: Connecting with God in a Distracting World (NavPress, 2009)

I, and a great many Christians I know, find it hard to be faithful in prayer. A Praying Life starts with the understanding that prayer is frustratingly difficult, but it places it so firmly within the broader strokes of the Christian life that it becomes something natural and central.

A Praying Life is largely a personal account of Miller’s own experience with prayer and trusting God. Miller spends much of the time talking honestly about his own struggles and how God has used various experiences to shape him. It’s genuine wisdom born out of hardship.

I found the first half of the book particularly valuable as Miller goes through why we find it difficult to pray. He shows that the way Christians speak about prayer makes it something so otherworldly that it is impossible to do naturally. The early chapters look at how we need to model ourselves on children when we pray – not being self-conscious, but being honest with what we want and accepting the fatherhood of God. Rather than presenting the perfect regime to master the discipline of prayer, he wisely advises ‘baby steps’ – making little changes rather than making idealistic resolutions that are unlikely to last more than a few days.

Miller sees a culture of cynicism as the root of why prayer is so hard for us. Our sceptical and jaded culture has profoundly influencing the way we relate to God. A praying life isn’t going to happen without first addressing this root cause, so Miller tries to help the reader to trust God. I found his chapters on this very helpful and encouraging – I would often want to put to book down so that I could start actually praying.

However, I did find aspects of Miller’s style quite frustrating. It has the tone of a self-help book and I found this increasingly grating as the book went on. Miller’s pithy remarks are more mawkish than profound. He writes from within the bubble of American Christianity. And he makes some odd decisions in who he quotes; for example, Einstein is quoted to show that we can believe in a God who is both infinite and personal, even though Einstein explicitly denied believing in a personal God.

Miller uses the Bible a lot, but in a rhetorical rather than exegetical fashion. Instead of looking at what the Bible says about prayer, Miller starts with his experiences which have taught him various things about prayer and he goes to the Bible to illustrate what he thinks. As a consequence he ends up using the Bible to say things quite different to what the original authors intended (though normally still good things to say).

That said, I would still recommend A Praying Life and I think those who read it will find it immensely beneficial.

Letters & Papers from Prison

Dietrich Bonhoeffer – Letters & Papers from Prison (SCM Press, 1953)

As the title suggests, the book has two sections: firstly, a collection of letters written either to his parents or to a close friend and, secondly, miscellaneous writings smuggled out of prison, or composed shortly before, as well as a description of his final days. The two parts give very different impressions of his time. The letters are tenderly written to reassure his family and friends, and in them he understates any difficulties. But his ‘Report of Prison Life’ is a shocking reminder of the injustice of the system and the abusive treatment of prisoners. In his letters, he can come across as simply pious, polite and bookish; it is really not until the essays that you get a sense for his purposefulness and zeal.

Of course, this difference was in part due to the strict prison censorship, which also ensures the letters are consistently apolitical. Bonhoeffer is constantly requesting books to read, but never asks for any of a political nature and never makes reference to Nazism. However, the editor, who is also the addressee of most of the letters, notes a few occasions where Bonhoeffer makes clandestine reference to the future attempt to assassinate Hitler or the German resistance movement (‘I am glad K. is getting on so well. For a long time he was so depressed.’).

A major theme of the papers is identifying the virtues needed to live in such a time and the vices which led to the circumstance. Interestingly, he does not see the need to try and explain the evil of Nazism. The greatest problem he sees in the world around him is not violent extremism or hatred, but weakness. He writes,
Is not the weakness of men often more dangerous than deliberate malice? I mean, such things as stupidity, lack of independence, forgetfulness, laziness, idleness, corruption, being easily led astray etc. Christ does not only make men good: he makes them strong too. The sins of weakness are the real human sins, the deliberate sins are diabolical, and no doubt strong as well! (p. 131)
In witnessing the rise of the Third Reich, what concerns Bonhoeffer most is not Hitler, but the man sitting quietly in the pew. To follow passively, he seems to suggest, requires relinquishing one’s humanity to such a degree that the ability to discern between good and evil is eventually lost. All that remains are the regurgitated political slogans.

A contrast emerges in his papers between the manner in which the people followed Hitler, and what it looks like to follow Christ. The latter following is not weak or self-protecting, but strong in the face of danger. ‘Christ,’ he says, ‘avoided suffering until his hour had come, but when it did come he seized it with both hands as a free man and mastered it’. He continues,
We are not Christs, but if we want to be Christians we must show something of Christ’s breadth of sympathy by acting responsibly, by grasping our “hour”, by facing danger like free men, by displaying a real sympathy which springs not from fear, but from the liberating and redeeming love of Christ for all who suffer. (p. 145)
This sympathy and strength is also clear in Bonhoeffer’s actions. Even in the worst moments, he reaffirms his decision to return to Nazi Germany from the safety of the USA. Although he does not suffer lightly, he accepts it as part of the cost of discipleship to the Christ who suffered.

My Crowded Solitude

Jack McLaren – My Crowded Solitude (1926)

Having run away to the tropics to live the life of a Wanderer, Jack McLaren sought adventure wherever it might be found. But, after some time, his wanderlust subsided and he took up an opportunity to establish a coconut plantation in an area of Cape York virtually unknown to all but the indigenous peoples. In a manner very reminiscent of Robinson Crusoe, My Crowded Solitude sees McLaren reflecting on his ‘eight years lonely residence among the most backward race of people in the whole of the tropical South Pacific, which is a place where backward people abound’ (p. 1).

At one point, when his quarterly shipment of provisions had arrived and the Aboriginal tribe he claimed mastery over went walkabout, McLaren was completely without human contact for over three months. He gives colourful descriptions of that time, the friendships he made with the local birds, lizards and spiders, his fear of insanity and his ache for humans.

But most of the book centres on his relationships with the Aboriginal tribe and gives a fascinating journey into the colonial mindset. McLarlen’s aspiration is to both tame the land and tame the people. As rows of palms replace the wild growth, he boasts, ‘From a black man’s jungle I have made a white man’s garden’ (p. 24), disregarding order that exists in both the forest and in Aboriginal society. However, he is aware of the irony that he, who had fled his civilised existence for the wild life, should come to embody civilisation and order, that is, whiteness. It is with some degree of reluctance that he accepts the white man’s burden to take on the role of master.

While he has admiration for the native’s bush skills, he is ultimately dismissive of them. He is continually frustrated by their ‘savagery’: their ineptitude with tools, work ethic, failure to conform to hierarchical social order, and, above all, moral backwardness. He writes,
They didn’t know there were such things as virtues. They didn’t know there were such things as vices. An act was just an act – neither virtuous nor vicious. To them there was no distinction between original sin and original good.
For, as members of perhaps the oldest living race of people in the world, they were ten thousand years beyond the times. They had not reached the stage of ethical and moral distinctions. While the rest of the world strode forward to the age of steel, they had remained far back in the age of stone.
They were the People Who Stood Still.
(p. 57)

What McLaren fails to recognise is that the men of the times, those civilisations of steel, were at the moment in the throes of the Great War, in which some seventeen million people were killed. What knowledge of good and evil is this that leads men to put on uniforms, climb into bombers and commit violence on a far greater scale?

McLaren does, however, acknowledge some of the more noxious effects of colonialism. In order to secure their labour, he had given the natives flour and tobacco. As time went by they came to depend on his supplies for their survival. Being in one place, game grew scarce and their hunting skills were diminished, but the freedom to move to new locations had been lost. McLaren writes,
All of which caused me to speculate whether, in being responsible for the implanting of those desires and needs, I was not guilty of a social wrong. There may have been something altruistic in raising a people a little from the depths of a great primitiveness. There was definitely something immoral in destroying their peace of mind.
(pp. 115-6)

One wonders how much stronger these feelings would have been had McLaren brought alcohol and opium to his crowded solitude. After these reflections, McLaren shows a more passive desire to see the natives adopt white customs. He disregards the efforts of a visiting missionary and feels more disconcerted than pleased when he meets Billy Number Five – an Aboriginal man more thoroughly assimilated into European culture.

The book provides an intriguing reflection on man’s inclination towards travel. It was only for this short time that McLaren was content to be a ‘Settled and Respectable Person’. Likewise, the Aboriginal people had an overwhelming urge to go walkabout. There is something sensible about being fixed to one place, but the soul is restless for new places. When McLaren feels this at the end of eight years, he returns to his old wandering life. In some ways it seems he had been immune to change all that time. In contrast, he left behind a people whose lives were profoundly irreversibly reshaped.

My Crowded Solitude is a great read and, I think, a really important one for all Australians.

Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis

Wendy Cope – Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis (Faber, 1986)

I don’t read very much contemporary poetry. I am sure there is good stuff out there, but whenever I have go looking everything I come across is of a style – free verse with prose syntax – which I find unsatisfying, so I retreat back to the safe confines of the Metaphysical and Romantic poets.

I was rather delighted last year to discover Wendy Cope, whose poetry is marked by playfulness with closed forms (poems with specific patterns of syntax/line length/meter/rhyme/stanzas). Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis, like her other work that I have read, has all sorts of fun with sonnets, villanelles, rondeau redoubles, limericks, ballades, haikus and triolets (If you don’t know what these are, then I regret to inform you that you haven’t lived and would recommend getting your hands on Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Travelled post-haste).

Cope writes with irony, wit and a great understanding of life’s simple pleasures and pains. Particular highlights for me were her parodies of other poets, including a couple brilliant nursery rhymes written in the style of T. S. Eliot and Wordsworth. Here’s the latter (which will be probably only be funny if you know Wordsworth’s poetry):

The skylark and the jay sang loud and long,
The sun was calm and bright, the air was sweet,
When all at once I heard above the throng
Of jocund birds a single plaintive bleat.

And, turning, saw, as one sees in a dream,
It was a Sheep had broke the moorland peace
With his sad cry, a creature who did seem
The blackest thing that ever wore a fleece.

I walked towards him on the stony track
And, pausing for a while between two crags,
I asked him, ‘Have you wool upon your back?’
Thus he bespake, ‘Enough to fill three bags.’

Most courteously, in measured tones, he told
Who would receive each bag and where they dwelt;
And oft, now years have passed and I am old,
I recollect with joy that inky pelt.

The second half of the book, which is written in the persona of a poet called Jake Strugnell, wasn’t so crash hot. And the book did have one other drawback, which I have chosen to express in a pantoum:

As much as I like reading Wendy Cope,
It’s impolite to do it on the train.
I try to keep from looking like a dope,
It’s clear they all regard me as insane.

It’s impolite to do it on the train
While packed within a worn and weary crowd.
It’s clear they all regard me as insane
When, thoughtlessly, I’ve read a poem aloud.

While packed within a worn and weary crowd
I want to look both manly and aloof.
When, thoughtlessly, I’ve read a poem aloud,
My chuckles draw expressions of reproof.

I want to look both manly and aloof –
Do poets ever come across this way?
My chuckles draw expressions of reproof.
Alas, I’ll have to put the book away

Do poets ever come across this way?
I try to keep from looking like a dope.
Alas, I’ll have to put the book away,
As much as I like reading Wendy Cope.