Monthly Archives: April 2015

Book Review: Good Evening, Mrs. Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes

Regular readers of this curious and ever-changing little blog may recall a little while ago that I went on a tour of the bookshops of London. One of those I visited was Perspephone Books, an outlet of a single publishing label whose aim it is to republish wrongfully-forgotten works, predominantly by female writers of the 20th century. It’s a wonderful aim and rather charming too. This was the book that I picked up while I was there.

Mollie Panter-Downes wrote regular correspndences for the New Yorker magazine in the 1930s and 40s. This is a compilation of short stories that is bookended by a pair of letters. Through fiction, Panter-Downes gives us a portrait of life in Britain during the war.

She steers away from actual conflict, though. There is little sign of the Axis powers, of bombs, bullets or Messerschmitts. It is much more about life (mostly rural and suburban, but some urban life is included) and the inconveniences that the war has caused to the everyday happenings. There are shadows of war and the odd gas mask about, but this speaks to some of the British values of the mid 20th century that were being fought for: community spirit, a good cup of tea, some peace & quiet or a nice view.

The odd thing about this is that so very few of the stories were particularly memorable. That may sound like damning with faint praise, so please allow me to explain. When reading, the details varied from story to story, but what one gets consistently, though evolving as time goes on, is a feeling, a sense of what is going on in wartime Britain. The characters are almost too well done; they are fairly boring, down-the-street people who have no outstanding qualities, are not afforded the opportunity to show their depth of character and to whom the strangeness of life, as caused by the war, is not an overwhelming burden against which they must battle. Rather, they just get on with things as best they can, while there are some disruptions to the kind of life they have been used to living.

It would do well, though, to look a little closer at the story which lends his title to this particular collection. Mrs. Craven is assumed title; it is not her real name. It is assumed, for who else would Mr. Craven be meeting for dinner on a regular basis but his wife? It could be seen as a kind of Brief Encounter type affair. The twist is though that Mr. Craven gets called up for service, so his mistress has no means of knowing how he is doing while she also has added anxiety knowing that his life is in danger. The only way she can find out is if she phones his wife…

The idolisation of doubt

Of late, there has been an increasing trend of christians extolling the virtue of doubt. One quote in particular which epitomises this is:

“The opposite of faith is not doubt, it’s certainty.”

The quote is actually from Anne Lamott, though it seems to be frequently misattributed to Paul Tillich.

The trouble with the usage the way this quote is used, and the way that doubt is spoken of sometimes, it comes across that doubt is the end goal, the point of enlightenment. This can tip over into hubris, whereby there can be a kind sneering at those who stand firm in their convictions.

Doubt is indeed a useful thing, but then again, so is medicine. Medicine doesn’t do much good unless you use it. It’s no good parading it around, saying “Look, I have medicine.” You actually have to take the medicine and allow it to perform it’s healing work. Likewise, doubt has to be used for something. It has to be the basis of enquiry, of searching for the answers.

One of the conundrums when dealing with questions of faith, doubt and certainty is that there can be a certainty that nothing is certain. OK, that’s a bit twisty, let’s try putting it another. The idea that ‘everything can be doubted’ is itself an idea that is so certain in some people’s minds that it has become an unquestionable dogma, precisely of the kind the same people so frequently oppose.

If I doubt something, I investigate. The fluidity of that doubt may firm up as I learn more and understand more. If I have the same doubts in a year’s time, is that a sign of maturity? I think not; it is stagnation. It’s a giving up in the face of a tough problem.

Compare the quote at the top with that from the letter to the Hebrews:

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

Another translation has ‘confidence’ and ‘assurance’ in place of ‘substance’ and ‘evidence’. The relevant Greek words being translated are hypostasis and elenchos. To equate faith with doubt here seems like a wrong way of reading the passage. And yes, I do think it is possible to state that some ideas that some christians hold about christianity are wrong.

Please don’t mistake me. I am not arguing for dogmatic, unquestionable assertions here. My point is that the way doubt is spoken of is that it is an end in itself and that there can be a temptation to humble-brag about having doubts. Such a display is, in my opinion, little more than an example of blowing one’s own trumpet or of being the self-righteous Pharisee. Instead, it is preferable for us to be firm in our convictions, not swayed or tossed by the winds of the latest opinion, but to have those convictions open to challenge. For firmness does not the mean the same as immovability. We must be open to learning, to being corrected, yet to be so to a reasonable degree.

Book Review: The History of the Church by Eusebius

Anyone who is interested in the history of christianity and has taken a cursory look into the subject will have heard various tidbits of information and will have seen then repeated in many a modern take on the first few centuries of the church. Some of these get trotted out in the occasional sermon, such as the idea that Peter was crucified upside down. Yet I’ve often wondered where they came from. It seems that the answer is Eusebius.

It is worth noting, since it has come in many versions over the years, that I read the Penguin Classics version, translated by G.A. Williamson with a very helpful introduction by Andrew Louth. According to this introduction, one cannot help but question Eusebius’ credibility as an historian. Famously, the Victorian historian of the ancient world, Edward Gibbon, had little regard for Eusebius. He is not the only one to cast doubt on the reliability of Eusebius’ work. Certainly, by the standards of modern historiography, Eusebius leaves a lot to be desired. While it is impossible to be neutral in writing history, Eusebius’ agenda and bias should be clear for all to see. But such a critical view should not be interpreted as meaning he is useless. Far from it; he is a source of great wealth, not least due to his habit of extensively quoting from earlier sources.

In some ways this is indicative of the maxim ‘history is written by the winners’ particularly here when it comes to questions of christian orthodoxy. He displays open contempt for those who were regarded as heretics and is also indicative of the rise of catholicism.

At the start of the work, Eusebius lays out his objectives. These are quite telling in themselves.

  1. line of succession of the apostles
  2. names and dates of various heretics
  3. the history of Judaism, post-Jesus
  4. the persecutions faced by the early church
  5. the martyrdoms that happened in those persecutions

The work is split into 10 books. An interesting point made in the introduction is that the work may initially have consisted of 8 books with the last two books being added some time later.

His opening book lays out his christology, which is demonstrative of a seemingly very high view. This is interesting in itself, seeing as Eusebius sided with Arius at the first council of Nicaea, an event which is never mentioned anywhere in this work. We get a sort of recapitulation of gospels, but viewed with the hindsight and interpretation of the very early church. For clarity, when some use the phrase “early church” they have in mind a period of the first few centuries of christian history. I use the phrase to mean the first few decades, with the most obvious event marking the transition between ages being the sacking of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, by which time the books that comprise our New Testament had been written and were in circulation.

From this opening, which is more of a background than anything else, we begin to get into the heart of the narrative. Here, the main sources seem to be Acts and Josephus, which makes for an interesting pairing. Our timeline seems to skip back and forth a little bit, so when we think we’ve moved into a distinctly post New Testament period, we come back to the odd reference from Luke’s latter work. Or was Luke the author? Well, even though the gospels were all anonymous, and it is reasonable to think that the author of Luke and Acts are the same person, it is from Eusebius that we get the names, particularly as he quotes Papias of Hierapolis, where we get the intriguing possibility that Matthew’s gospel was first composed in either Hebrew or Aramaic.

There are lots of little vignettes throughout the book that are useful and interesting to get an understanding of certain aspects of the history of the later church. But when it comes to the early church, there is scant all reliable detail. The aims are also indicative of quite a late mindset that is quite different from that as evidenced in the gospels and book of Acts. For example, point 1) above shows that there has become an obsession with the notion of apostolic succession, yet the only evidence Eusebius has for the first few links is “tradition” which is no evidence at all. Even the idea that Peter was ever a bishop of Rome is highly questionable.

The heresiological aspects of Eusebius are quite interesting, particularly to help see the kinds of ideas that were being bandied about. We never quite get to Nicaea here (recall that Eusebius sided with Arius at the council in 425) which is a shame, but we walk part of the path towards it.

Most of the books, though, are taken up with the rather gory tales of martyrdom. Be in no doubt, it does make for some highly graphic and deeply disturbing reading. One might almost consider, if you’ll indulge the anachronism, that Eusebius is aiming to gross-out his readers by being as visceral as possible. All this, though, does make for some quite turgid reading. It goes on and on and on. The only relief comes as the book ends with the rise of Constantine and his favourable treatment of the christians.

One of the sourest elements, though, comes with the exploration of point c). Eusebius comes across as what we would now describe as anti-Semitic. There is clear ethnic and religious prejudice against the Jewish people. So what the modern historian can infer is that in just a few centuries the church went from being a predominantly Jewish phenomenon, albeit with a reformed twist to its messianic eschatology, to being a gentile religion that had forgotten its roots and bore a grudge against the Jews.

Overall, I can’t say it was the greatest book to read. It is one of the great tragedies of christianity that there are no contemporary histories written of the early church other than the book of Acts. By the time we’ve come to Eusebius, we have a very different beast with a different set of priorities. There is plenty of value in here, though. It’s just that one might need to read through Eusebius a bit to get to it.

Walking by faith, not by sight

A few Saturdays ago I had to go shopping in the city centre, very close to where I work. In fact the most convenient way to get there was to use the route of my normal commute. In doing this, I travelled a familiar route but at an unfamiliar time and with travelling companions who weren’t familiar with this stretch of the London underground.

I knew which carriage I needed to be on and which side the doors would open on. When I got off the train I knew when to turn left and when to turn right. I didn’t need to look too hard in order to know where I was going. My eyes were open and I made sure I didn’t walk into other people, but I had assurance of where I was going so I could step out in confidence. In contrast, the tourists around me were hesitant. They had to stop and look at the signs in order to get where they were going. Even after having seen the signs, their steps were still faltering and they kept looking behind them.

We all ended up in the same place eventually, using the same route, but just with different mindsets. It was as I ascended the steps into the spring sunshine that this gave me a refreshed understanding of what we mean by “walking by faith, not by sight”. I wasn’t blind as I walked through the corridors, but having done the route so many times, it wasn’t necessary for me to constantly look out to make sure I was on the right path. I had confidence, based on the evidence of my experience, that I was going the right way. This was a demonstration of faith in my own ability to navigate.

When we speak of faith, there ought to be two elements included to give proper meaning. The first of these is the object of our faith. i.e. what is our faith in? In the case above, it was faith in a particular skill. The other element is the basis of faith. i.e. what is the epistemological source for that faith? In the case above, it was the experience of having done that route hundreds of times before.

So that’s my challenge both to myself and to you: when we speak of faith, let it not be left dangling, in isolation, prone to misinterpretation. Let’s be clear about the object and basis of our faith.

Book Review: Cover Her Face by P.D. James

After asking for suggestions for what to read this year, one idea that cropped up was to read a murder mystery. It’s not my normal cup of tea so this was a step out of my comfort zone as far as fiction reading goes. Like my picking up of Iain Banks last year, P.D. James was another writer of whom I had only heard, but was reminded of when she died a few months ago.

While I have had an aversion to reading murder mysteries, I have seen quite a few adaptations, though I don’t recall seeing any that were taken from the works of P.D. James. Much more commonly adapted are the works of Agatha Christie. They tend to be extremely formulaic with a murder happening after some gathering where there is a disagreement and the location is isolated, with just a handful of possible suspects.

It is a formula that P.D. James sticks to rigorously here. We open with a very old fashioned dinner party. The one variation is that the people present at the dinner party aren’t the ones who end up in the house. So one may notice the presence of a vicar here but he is a fleeting character who doesn’t appear again (a violation of Chekhov’s Gun). I think what frustrated me was that in anticipation of a murder (for that is what the reader knows they will get, even before reading the first sentence) one tries to see in the characters who will be murdered and who the suspects are. So we instantly start with a slanted view that one doesn’t read any other kind of fiction – or at least none that I can think of readily as I write this at quarter to eleven in the evening.

As morning breaks, we discover that someone has been killed, which should come as no surprise. As an aside, it might be interesting to market a book as a murder mystery, where the mystery is when will it occur, but it never does. Shortly afterwards, we get to meet the detective who will solve the crime, Adam Dalgleish. He does not come across as a particularly multi-dimensional character. There is an attempt at giving him a backstory, but it feels rather forced and doesn’t sit within the narrative terribly well.

That said, the start of the investigation did keep me turning over the pages. Though it was relatively easy to put down, it wasn’t the kind of book that you get half way through and then peer at out of the corner of your eye, not really wanting to finish it. There were a number of irritating features. For one, there were characters (one important) who were introduced after the murder, so it seems that the idea of working it out for yourself is not on the cards. If there is to be any joy in a murder mystery, it is having all the facts available at an early stage that allow you to be able to work it out. The rest of the book may shed light on these pieces of evidence, making you think about them in new ways. This is not what P.D. James does, though.

So I was just wanting to get to the end in order to see who did it, but even when the murderer was revealed, there was no great line of reasoning. They just confessed under no real pressure. There was no incontrovertible evidence presented that compelled them to confess. All the way through the book, the sympathy for the victim seems sorely lacking. There is all the sense of a mystery, with one family in particular coming under a suspicion that no one dares speak aloud, but there is no sense of tragedy.

The proliferation of characters in a relatively short book means there is no space to give any of them depth. So as I write this review about a week after having finished it, not one of the characters really stuck in my mind. They are like the faces I see on the Underground every day; they may have some distinctive features, but not one of them lingers.

If there is anything to be said by way of mitigation, it is that this is the first of the Adam Dalgleish novels and so may well represent a writer who is aping those who have gone before her and who has not yet found her voice. I may come back and read a later novel in the series, but I’m no great hurry to do so.

The delight of a murder mystery?

*trigger warning: I here discuss quite plainly both murder and rape*

As stated at the start of the year, I aimed to read at least some books this year that I either disagree with or that are off my beaten track. One of those that was suggested to me was anything by P.D. James, the murder mystery writer who died last autumn. At the time of writing this, I am about a third of the way through her first Adam Dalgleish novel, Cover Her Face. I will be posting my review of the book in a couple of days.

As a preface to that, though, I wanted to explore why it is that I find murder mystery stories so offputting. The primary objection has to be that it makes light of a hideous crime. The wilful ending of another’s life is an unspeakable act of evil and to turn it into a form of entertainment seems perverse. There are plenty of things in the world that are entertaining; it is decidedly odd that so much attention is focused on this one form.

It could be argued that the entertainment is not in the murder but in the mystery. If this is so, then why is the murder such an important feature? It is possible to have mysteries in other forms, there seems to be no pressing need for a wrongful death to kick start the plot. I have wondered if a ghost story might differ, though that also might well begin with a wrongful death, though we are not witness to the act, merely the aftermath.

What about a robbery? It is not always clear from the outset who committed them, so are inherently mysterious, but they are solvable, just like murders. Yet this is still a crime. Could we think of another form of mystery that doesn’t entail any breaking of the law?

The one that springs to my mind is that of a scientific discovery. I don’t recall too many shelves in bookshops that contain fictional scientific discoveries. Possibly the reason this hasn’t taken off is that science is concerned with well-evidenced facts about the universe that are universal. If one fictionalises it, it could easily be debunked as nonsense. That said, fanciful, falsifiable rubbish never stopped Dan Brown.

There is a further crime to consider here. It is the one crime that has, in recent years, been the focus of attention from many a feminist campaigner: Rape. Imagine the outcry there would be if an author (and the publisher allowed it) wrote a series of novels, launching a whole genre whereby the impetus for the plot was the vile, violent act of sexual intrusion. I strongly doubt it would become a readily accepted form of literature. The closest we got recently was the much publicised (and from what I hear, awfully written) Fifty Shades of Grey, which featured a certain of BDSM and abuse. The film adaptation yielded some protests, yet I can’t think that if one went further and had an adaptation of a “rape mystery” then the protests would be much more vocal and widespread.

If that supposition is correct, then why do we, as a culture, see murder as more acceptable than rape? Both are despicable, violent acts which in one case ends a life and in the other devastates a life. It is tempting to think that we have simply become desensitised to murder as a result of the literary and cinematic portrayals of it, whereas rape remains taboo. But I’m not convinced that view is right. If it were, then it fails to explain how murder mystery became such a popular genre. If it had been equally as taboo as rape, then how did it gain traction without giving rise to protest? At least, I’m not aware that the works of Agatha Christie were the subject of much controversy at the time they were written. Nor was Edgar Allen Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue, which is, as far I understand, one of the early examples of what we would understand to be a murder mystery story.

Without thoroughly investigating the history of the genre, I cannot give a firm answer. I have only my opinion. And that opinion is that there is something deeply disturbing about the glibness with which we, as a whole, treat murder in fiction. But I’m willing to have that opinion changed; so, as stated at the top, I shall read and review a novel by P.D. James.

Book Review: The British Constitution – A Very Short Introduction by Martin Loughlin

When reading the Very Short Introduction (VSI) series, I find them to be ideal for subjects where one has some modicum of understanding, but where any level of detail is currently unknown to me. Having grown up and lived in Britain all my life, and having observed our politics for most of my adult life, I get an idea of what it means for something to be “constitutional”. Unlike the Americans, we don’t have a fixed, codified constitution. It is very much something of a ‘sense’ that we have, but which is instilled in us through roughly 800 years of history since the signing of the Magna Carta. As we mark the octocentenary of that famous document it seemed appropriate to have a read of this.

The opening discourse is about the nature of a constitution and what could count as one. The most famous example is, of course, the American constitution, but it’s noted that that’s quite an odd example as it was designed as a founding document to a country with no history, no legal precedent of its own. So Thomas Paine (whose Rights of Man I have, but haven’t read yet) makes a rather post hoc argument defining a constitution as a single document with several features which just happen to coincide with a description of the American one.

One might well think, as I did at the outset, that there would be considerable focus on the Magna Carta and its legacy, but its role in British constitutional history is heavily downplayed here. Instead, Loughlin opts for a “common law” approach, claiming that what we understand as the British constitution is the combined history and tradition of the laws of the land. In order to colour the picture in we get a rundown of some specific pieces of legislation that have been passed over the centuries and their effect on the democratic make-up of what we now know as the United Kingdom.

Oddly enough, the author never mentions Erskine May, the guide to parliamentary procedure. This prompted me to then have a look at the author’s background, and here we can see that perhaps Loughlin was not the best choice to author a book on the constitution, as his expertise is in law. So it is little wonder that he views the constitution as the combination of various laws passed through the centuries. If it were labelled as “British legal history – A Very Short Introduction” then we might be less disillusioned.

In amongst a bit of a hodge podge of pieces, there is some really good stuff. For example, we get a good summary of the political history of the various unions that have taken place to give us the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland that we now have. Interestingly, it’s very much a book of its time, as it frequently references the current coalition government. So it will be interesting to see how later editions may be changed to reflect the government of the day.