Temporarily dead

Little Faith, Nickolas Butler, Faber.

The Gospel According to Lazarus, Richard Zimler, Peter Owen Publishers.

Little Faith is set in what has been called ‘flyover country’, that neglected part of America, Midwest small towns, where there is a different pace, where there is more contact with the rhythm of the seasons, but where the effects of modernity are more to be seen in decline than progress. The plot centres on Lyle, a retiree who gains comfort from small town life, despite the decline, who with his wife attends a traditional Lutheran church, whose rusting liturgy might be seen as old-fashioned and also in decline. But Lyle finds rhythm and comfort here too, despite questioning the existence of God since the death of his son.

In contrast, his adopted adult daughter is drawn to a charismatic blow-in preacher, who has started a Pentecostal, non-denominational church in an old movie theatre. The book shows a careful understanding of the appeal and enthusiasm of such a ‘modern’ church, but it also shows an understanding of how such enthusiasm can hide manipulation and judgment. The book draws out issues of what it means to love God through loving others, even if his existence may not seem self-evident. The pastor of the traditional church, someone whose prodigal son-like worldly roaming in his early days has left him alert to the mystery and not-so-obvious nature of spiritual answers, describes the ‘elusiveness’ of faith, but this is portrayed as not simply deficiency, as well as being contrasted with the certainty of impulsively protecting family and doing what is right.

Many American novels focus on the coast-hugging citizens, the glamorous or the outcasts. Here the main character is what is usually thought of as the stalwart, the dependable older person, but a strength of the novel is making this character into a literarily satisfying, psychologically rounded figure, rather than a caricature. The book also shows how while we have an attraction to certainty, which you might think is a feature of small-town life, such places are more subtle, with people negotiating, especially through churches, a world with a seemingly random mix of good and bad.

The Gospel of Lazarus takes a different tone. Its literariness and flair contrast with the more appropriately down-home gentleness of the prose of Little Faith. And its setting is a more fraught and frenetic world. An ageing and exiled Lazarus tells of the disorientation and doubt after his resurrection (he feels guilty about not having seen an afterlife while temporarily dead) (along with having to face the repercussions of becoming ritually unclean by being dead), his friendship with Jesus, Holy Week and its aftermath. It’s a well-worn story of course, made unfamiliar and immediate not only by the author’s use of names (Jesus is Yeshua and so forth) but also by the depth of evocation of the times and setting. The brutality of Roman occupation contrasts with the life and love-filled Jesus, who is both mystic and revolutionary, a ‘sandstorm’. Jesus’ knowledge of the Torah is a dreamworld full of resonances and prophecy and direction, and this all dovetails into his understanding that his destiny is to rid the priests of their power because, as Lazarus realises too, the priests have made themselves into idols. (One of the novel’s strengths is to circumvent the wrongly premised academic argument as to whether Jesus’ mission was primarily material or spiritual.) 

Hence the conclusion of Holy Week which is, as Lazarus finds out, for Jesus’ followers not a conclusion but a beginning. (Jesus’ death becomes only an apparent and temporary setback.) In one way, first-century Palestine is a long way from small-town America, but in another it is not. Both novels convey the sense of carrying on with Jesus’ ministry of concern for others even while in the company of doubt, and how love in action nurtures faith, not always the other way around.

Clive James: 1939-2019

Clive James, who died this week, is being celebrated for his humour and writing, and his genius was in his ability to mix high and low; indeed, in a very Australian egalitarian way, to discuss works on their merit rather than according to prejudices and hierarchies about what art should be, and to see interest and, yes, humour, wherever he looked.

I came to Clive James late, as his TV career was winding down. I became interested in his books of reviews, and hunted them out in dusty bookshops, getting my hands on as many as I could. There are demarcations in his writing between the poetry, the serious criticism and the journalism, but he could write about anything cultural, and in his writings tennis players, pop singers, actors and motor racing drivers rub shoulders with opera singers, painters and medieval poets. He could find humour in high art and could take popular TV seriously. Well, he wrote about the latter in furiously funny fashion, but it wasn’t beneath him, as it might have been for other Oxbridge graduates.

Of course, Japanese game shows and Dante are not the same, and James’ first love was poetry, for which he primarily wanted to be remembered (but for which he probably won’t). He was educated at a time when poetry had more prominence than it has now, when it was as popular as TV. But poetry is where the craft of writing most dazzles, and poetry or prose, James was a master stylist. The humour just made it seem all the more effortless.

As he got older, a lecturing tone crept in, as he took on the role of old man of letters. He had strong opinions (including his rejection of religion, despite, we might note, his love of Dante). He had quite the ego, as noted by both himself and those around him. He once said that in show business you can’t be modest about your level of talent because there are too many people ready to agree with you. The ego wasn’t precluded by the fact that he could laugh at himself. It’s just that he found many things funny.

You can see evidence of both ego and self-deprecation in the book May Week was in June, a continuation of his memoirs. He describes his lack of focus, except for non-essential tasks, like writing poems about ducks who, somehow, have annoyed him, but he then muscled in on the role of poetry editor at Granta so he didn’t have to put up with editors not as talented as he was.

In a review of Philip Larkin’s jazz criticism, James noted Larkin’s rejection of the pretension of John Coltrane. Larkin thought that modern art went badly when it intellectualised or mystified. I think Larkin was something of an inspiration for James. Larkin was poet and critic, and he felt that art was for human beings to ‘enjoy’ and ‘endure’. I read the passage discussing this in one of James’ collections of reviews, which I grabbed randomly off the shelf and was flicking through after I heard he died. Often James wrote about the philosophy of art, if I can call it that, but without sacrificing lucidity, or humour and enjoyment, and because of this his frighteningly expansive intellect gets under the radar. And perhaps so it should. Truly great writers explain the complicated well and draw you in. Second-rate writers boost their egos by making things more complicated or by being unnecessarily negative.

James’s writing bubbles with enthusiasm. While he could be just as funny in his destruction of art he thought second-rate, he was one of those critics who wants to send you back to read or listen to the works he loves. There is a sunniness to his writing, a post-war optimism, thrown into more relief by the shadows of the wars and the loss of his father, and boosted by fond remembrance, possibly exaggerated by nostalgia, of his childhood in Sydney, where its harbour shone like, as he once put it, crushed diamonds. When he did fly home, he would sit at Circular Quay and enjoy white wine and the crushed diamonds, and when he no longer could fly home, it grew better in the memory. Sometimes his long-distance national pride was skewed – he praised John Howard’s prime ministership without perhaps understanding how the nation had shifted and how many non-white Australians felt alienated by Howard’s love of the good old days. But I think James owed some of his success to the unpretentious, easy-going Australia he grew up in (even if he was quick to get out of Australia, famously, and resided permanently in the UK).

Seeing him as a larrikin perhaps hides the fact that he was in love with language (and not just English – he taught himself multiple languages, partly by reading favourite books in their original languages), captured by, voracious for, writing and its potential. Even the TV criticism, while we might only dimly remember the characters he is discussing, astounds with its literary richness. James finished May Week was in June by cunningly combining the (false) modesty and ego in the sentence, ‘All I can do is turn a phrase until it catches the light’. Like crushed diamonds.

They brought their own plagues

The Book of Exodus (Lives of Great Religious Books), Joel Baden, Princeton.

The Song of Songs (Lives of Great Religious Books), Ilana Pardes, Princeton.

If we ever needed reminding that the Bible is a collection of works of varying genres, we could put the book of Exodus and the Song of Songs side by side. Exodus is on an epic scale, the Song of Songs, intimate; Exodus a grand historical narrative, the Song of Songs, poetic; Exodus is tribal, the Song, universal; Exodus, bloodthirsty and dramatic at times, the Song, tender; God stars in Exodus, doesn’t rate a mention in the Song. Yet there are similarities too.

In a key sentence about who God is, the Lutheran theologian Robert Jensen once suggested that the main story of the Christian Bible is rescue through the Exodus story of Israel leaving Egypt, first of all, then through Jesus. In Jewish belief today the Exodus is central. Joel Baden argues that being Jewish is defined by this story of rescue as much as descent from Abraham. (You can’t invent an Abrahamic lineage, but you can convert to Judaism, and the Exodus story then becomes your story.)

Many have wondered why on earth the Songs of Songs was included in the Bible, yet, Ilana Pardes tells us, some rabbis, especially Spanish medieval Kabbalists, made the perhaps audacious claim that the Song too is central, because its theme is love. It’s about romantic love, sure. But it can stand for love in general, the essence of God, and for theologians over the centuries it has stood allegorically for the love of God for the church or the people (no matter how stretched the allegory might seem). For the rabbis, the lover’s search for the beloved symbolised how we seek and find God. For scholars interpreting the book this way, the Song stood for all the possibilities of interpreting scripture, a microcosm of the symbolic, multilayered richness of scripture as a whole.

The Song, though it is purported to be Solomon’s, is actually a complex compilation, which explains some of its odd twists and dreamlike quality. Similarly, Exodus is obviously not by Moses – Moses couldn’t have described his own death, after-all. Instead it’s a patchwork of various narratives, and the events it describes lack much historical basis outside the Bible itself. It probably contains memories of migration from Egypt, and historians think the Passover ritual is based on an older harvest festival. Interestingly, this ritual was at some stage taken out of the hands of the priests and put into the hands of the laity – the Seder, the Jewish remembrance of the Passover, is celebrated in homes, not the synagogue. Ironically, says Baden, the Christian reinterpretation of the Passover into the Eucharist placed the ritual back into the hands of priests. And in the Catholic tradition at least, the doctrine of the Real Presence made the symbolic more literal again.

The Exodus story lends itself well to symbolism, as Baden points out, with any oppression over centuries liable to be interpreted as an Exodus tale, as in the Protestant Reformation. Luther was likened to Moses, though he disliked such lofty comparisons, and the Pope to Pharaoh. Later, the English Puritans travelling to America likened themselves to the Israelites leaving Egypt. Although they were reluctant to fight the native inhabitants of the new Canaan, they brought their own plagues which did the job for them.

The American revolutionaries likened the English king to Pharaoh, but the always perspicuous Samuel Johnson saw the irony in American slave-owners symbolising their revolution as a revolt against slavery. The ironic nature of the Land of the Free containing slaves persisted. Later still, the Exodus story resonated deeply with Black Americans’ push for civil rights. In Martin Luther King’s last public speech, just before he was murdered, he spoke of equality as the promised land and, famously, in an eerily prophetic turn, likened himself to Moses, who of course led the people to the promised land but didn’t enter it.

The Song of Songs has also been important for Black Americans, and is a large influence on, for example, the fiction of Toni Morrison, mainly because the Song’s lover describes herself as black and beautiful. (Pardes says that the phrase ‘I am black, but comely’ can just as easily, and more appropriately, be translated as ‘I am black, and comely’, dispelling any notion that being black is inferior.) More generally, feminist scholars have noted the strikingly assertive voice of the (female) lover. Which goes to show that one can find inspiration for liberty in all sorts of places in the Bible, in both the grand narrative and the single, poetic phrase.

Traces left

Time Song: Searching for Doggerland, Julia Blackburn, Cape

How do you write a book about land now under the sea? (Time Song is about Doggerland, the area between England and Europe that was above water 10,000 years ago, but rising seas since the last ice age eventually covered it, cutting England off from Europe.) If you are Julia Blackburn you do what you did for your last book (about the life of fisherman and artist John Craske). You start with what you know and surmise the rest, imaginatively cast about, weave in your own story.

We do know a fair bit and there is plenty of evidence. The Dogger Banks is an area of raised seabed rich in fish and Doggerland’s existence was first suggested by all the bones dragged up from the banks by fisherman, who were puzzled by their origins – some thought Devilish – but the bones were thought of as a worthless hindrance and many were destroyed.

You can visit the periphery. An area of the Netherlands recently rewilded gives an idea of the original Doggerland flora and fauna – except for mammoths. Bones, often of mammoths, and flints also wash up on the beaches of East Anglia. When the tide is low you can also find evidence of a drowned forest (and underneath that, river clay, and underneath that, another drowned forest).

You can look elsewhere for comparisons, to African bushmen, and to a cave at Gibraltar where Ice Age people lived. You can also write about geological history. East Anglia is a part of the world where the cliffs retreat quickly, spilling their contents onto the shore, creating a boon for archaeologists and palaeontologists, both amateur and professional. If you are Blackburn, you are inspired by all the bits and pieces you pick up, that you are given by other fossickers, that you line your windowsill with.

(The coasts of Australia would also be a good comparison. Indigenous myth retains knowledge of drowned landscapes, as related by Patrick Nunn in the book The Edge of Memory.)

You write about the instability of things that are usually thought of as stable – landmasses, mountains, rivers, lakes, forests, species, nations, cultures. The geological timescale sped up is about a constant wiping of the slate clean, of landmasses like Doggerland being swamped as quickly as sandcastles on a beach.

You also think of loved ones gone, how they fit into the expanse of time, what traces they leave.

The streets are flooding

The End of Ice: Bearing Witness and Finding Meaning in the Path of Climate Disruption, Dahr Jamail, The New Press

The Rising Tide: Among the Islands and Atolls of the Pacific Ocean, Tom Bamforth, Hardie Grant

Mark Twain once said that contemplating glaciers reduces one’s self-importance to zero. Unfortunately, most of us live a long way from glaciers, so therefore we don’t learn the lesson. In fact, our self-importance is detrimental to glaciers, as Dahr Jamail’s sobering book reminds us. Jamail reports on what will likely happen and, more importantly, on what is happening right now from climate warming, but the problem is, the worst effects are happening in places remote from the centres of ‘civilisation’: New York, London, Singapore, Sydney, and even if information is abundant, we don’t immediately experience the effects. If, however, we do travel to the places where things are dire, Jamail suggests, it is like sitting at the bedside of a dying friend.

What’s the diagnosis? Well, the size of glaciers in the European Alps has been reduced by half. It is worse in Antarctica. In Montana’s Glacier National Park the name is rapidly becoming ironic, as 85% of the ice has disappeared there. This is significant for farms, rivers, city drinking water, the food chain, species diversity. Glaciers are reservoirs that let out water gradually. Without them, flash flooding is increased, as well as water shortages in the summer months. This is just the tip of the climate iceberg. Small rises in alpine temperatures reduce snow cover and avalanches, which might sound good, but avalanches clear forest, providing variety in habitat and species, pathways for larger animals, and debris in streams that harbours fish. Forests take time to adjust to small changes, and resilience to disease and pests can be weakened in tree populations. Beetle infestation related to temperature rise in the forests of the west of the US has caused damage that is visible from space.

Also remote from New York and Sydney, the Arctic is experiencing less ice, meaning less animals, less hunting, and a lessening of traditional Inuit lifestyles, which forces more indigenous people to the cities or Western consumerism, putting more pressure on the environment and the climate. In a sad twist, it is mostly the poorer populations, the ones contributing less to the problem, that are most affected by a warming climate.

The Pacific Islands may seem a long way from the Arctic, but the end of ice means a rising tide for our low-lying Pacific neighbours, as Tom Bamforth notes in his both light and heavy hearted book that covers the often negative legacy of Western influence. Many island nations are already having to resituate septic tanks and the like to avoid the consequences of higher king tides, as well as planning for more frequent and intense cyclones. They are not merely talking about what might happen. As well as noticing the beaches polluted by plastic, residents have noticed the shift in weather patterns, the unusual dry spells, the rain when it shouldn’t be raining. Some Pacific governments are buying land in countries with higher elevations, while officially telling their citizens they are planning for flooding mitigation. (Although, sadly, the influence of conservative Christianity on some islands means some take God’s promise to Noah literally to indicate that flooding is an impossibility and they need not worry.)

More affluent countries are not immune, of course. Dahr Jamail reports that while Floridians elect climate change naysayers to public office, the streets are flooding regularly from rising groundwater. Politicians possibly deny to avoid panic, but there are signs that millions of dollars will be lost, housing prices will plummet, insurance will be unavailable. Florida, like many Pacific atolls, is low, and much land could be – will likely be – swallowed by the ocean.

The ocean won’t win either. We are already losing half of our coral reefs, by one estimate. And on land, we have increased bushfires, cyclones. The USA has just experienced record-breaking low temperatures, while bushfires rage in the Amazon, California and around Sydney, as well as in northern Queensland where rainforest hasn’t been known to burn before. Jamail suggests that we need to be realistic about what’s coming, and not think we can ignore it or that it can somehow all be fixed. Importantly, he advises that we need to allow ourselves to grieve. Much is being lost, and much will be lost. Anger is an appropriate response; so is sadness.

For some of us, though, it seems to be business as usual. Literally. When in New York this year, our prime minister decided a business lunch was more pressing than the much-publicised climate discussions, and earlier, in Tuvalu, his response to what responsibilities Australia has for our Pacific neighbours threatened with sea level rise was disappointing, to put it mildly. But he’s not alone. He’s simply elected by a population that can’t see or doesn’t want to see the scope of the problem.

Craters on the moon and sunspots

On Trial for Reason: Science, Religion and Culture in the Galileo Affair, Maurice Finocchiaro, Oxford.

The Galileo affair, writes Maurice Finocchiaro in his history of the event and its aftermath, lends itself to myths, one being that it is the archetypal example of the eternal conflict between science and religion, an example of the Church rejecting evidence because it is stuck in its ways and fears losing power. Another, revisionist but less-widely held view is that the affair was all about Galileo’s combative personality and rivalries within the Church’s hierarchy. Finocchiaro argues that the truth, as is often the case, is somewhere in the middle.

It’s fair to say that Galileo had his share of battles in his lifetime, but Finocchiaro argues that Galileo was a model of reasonable and critical thinking, open to other points of view, as is evident from the dialogue form he used to present the case for Copernicus’s theories of the Earth revolving around the sun, against the orthodox view of the planets and stars revolving around the Earth. (I think, though, that Galileo’s protest that he was just discussing both sides of the argument fairly is somewhat disingenuous – he was obviously trying subtly to forward the Copernican argument.) Finocchiaro discusses the machinations of various patrons, and says that it was all complicated, but not that complicated. In the end, it was still an argument over science. While science and religion are not necessarily in conflict, in this case they were. Sort-of.

But it was not just a matter of the Bible conflicting with scientific evidence. The Bible was simply another layer of confirmation on top of centuries of understanding refined since the ancient Greeks. It was as much about one scientific theory against another, and about scientific method. It was not illogical or unreasonable to believe in geocentrism. Galileo himself had rejected Copernicanism earlier in his astronomical career and it was only after making observations through his telescope that he changed his mind.

The orthodox view was that it was fairly obvious that the heavenly bodies moved around the Earth, just as clouds moved. If the Earth moved, we’d be able to feel it. Because of centrifugal force, a revolving Earth would fling untethered objects, including people, out into space. The arguments against Copernicus were complex (thinking of people at the time as ignorant flat-earthers is itself ignorance). Heliocentrism went against quite extraordinary philosophical conceptions, involving the temporality of the Earth compared to the eternal nature of the heavens, and circular versus linear movement (orbital movement of the heavenly bodies was part of, not contrary to, the sophisticated argument for the perfection of the heavenly spheres).

One of the most interesting aspects of the story, I think, and one that illuminates from an odd angle the complex nature of scientific debate at the time, is that Galileo rejected the lunar attraction explanation of the tides, which was put forward by his contemporaries, because he didn’t know about gravity and thought the moon invisibly influencing water at a great distance was simply akin to magic. Instead, he thought that the combination of the Earth’s yearly orbit and its daily rotation somehow combined to make alternating acceleration and deceleration that caused oscillations in large bodies of water. This was typical of his way of thinking, but the fact that he was wrong says something interesting about the relationship of observation, theory and fact.

Although today we would think Galileo’s telescopic observations were rather decisive in settling the matter of heliocentrism, Finocchiaro reminds us that Galileo didn’t observe that directly. It was actually just a theory inferred from the movement of planets already observed by others, and suggested by the fact that Jupiter had orbiting bodies. Galileo used his telescope to observe craters on the moon and sunspots, which made him question arguments about the perfection of the heavenly spheres (thereby making him further reason that maybe the Earth was just like other heavenly bodies, planets in particular), but the telescope was an innovative but untried technology and there was no proof that the flaws in heavenly bodies Galileo saw weren’t somehow made by the apparatus itself. It was, in short, prudent and reasonable to be wary of Galileo’s ‘evidence’ until it could be corroborated.

But also at the heart of the matter and a further part of the problem for Galileo, and particularly for his relationship to the Catholic Church, was the role of observation compared to scripture, and whether observation should be privileged if it contradicted scripture (in this case, a very literalist reading of Ecclesiastes 1 and Joshua 10). This was not a new argument – Saint Augustine had wondered about the same issue. Although Galileo tried to avoid the religious side of the debate, he was making a theological argument – that if observation contradicts scripture, we might have to rethink our interpretation of scripture. Of course he was right, and centuries later, Pope John Paul II, in an attempt to rehabilitate Galileo’s reputation within the Church, agreed, as had Augustine centuries earlier.

This issue of how literally to take the Bible, and how that relates to our observations of the natural world, was not only not new to Galileo’s time; of course, it remains an issue in our own day.

Less tangible aspects

A Theory of Everything (That Matters), Alister McGrath, Hodder & Stoughton

The ‘theory of everything’ is the name scientists give to the holy grail of physics, an as-yet-undiscovered theory that digs down to rock bottom of the micro world of quantum physics and that also links to the macro world of Newtonian physics. Theologian Alister McGrath has sort-of repurposed this ‘theory of everything’ to name the way Einstein, the subject of this book, was open to, even argued for, the different ways of describing the universe provided by science and religion. He understood that holistic understanding can’t be left to science alone. Science couldn’t answer what historian of science Karl Popper called the ‘ultimate questions’. ‘So much of what really matters to human beings seems to be beyond the scope of scientific method,’ writes McGrath, and he is thinking partly of the difference between scientific objectivity and the subjectivity that rules much of our lives.

McGrath describes Einstein as the twentieth century’s favourite genius, partly because Einstein unsettled the Newtonian version of the universe, even if Einstein saw himself building on that version, and also partly because Einstein saw science fitting into a wider picture of society – politics in particular, but also what we think of as culture. He argued against the use of nuclear weapons (though unfairly blamed for their development), knowing that scientific ability doesn’t necessarily bring with it the appropriate ethics. He also understood that art and music are not completely different to science, but that scientific innovation, for which he is famous, involves more intuitive, holistic and imaginative approaches, which are also like the less tangible aspects involved in spirituality. McGrath describes this nicely as a mix of unity and diversity. (A further darker aspect of all this inseparability of science and culture is the fact that antisemitism meant delays in awarding Einstein the Nobel Prize.)

McGrath is in a good position to write about and be inspired by Einstein, having studied physics and Einstein in his youth and turned later to the history of religion and theology, as well as turning from a teenage atheism to belief. Einstein didn’t believe in a personal God, and was critical of the Bible for leading literalists astray, but he talked a lot about God, who he envisaged as a foundation for the universe – a deist’s God, one who put the laws of the universe in place, a notion sometimes watered down as simply Darwinesque wonder at the orderliness of the universe, but this would be to underestimate Einstein’s thought. He felt that there was something or someone behind the laws, someone beyond our powers of description.

McGrath thinks that Einstein’s ideas of how the universe points to God and how he sees science and religion as compatible and necessary for the breadth of human understanding are a good starting point for acceptance of a personal (Christian) God, as was actually the case for the teenage McGrath. Whether this God is a correct theorisation is of course another story, and there are other strains of Christianity that take seriously Saint Paul’s warning that Christianity might not make a lot of sense to the scientifically minded.