Thursday, 29 August 2013

The Gospels for Hearers

The Gospels for Hearers. Translated from the Koine Greek by Elizabeth B. Edwards. Dianggellia Press, 2013 ISBN 9780646555805 Order online at

In churches everywhere the Gospels are read aloud and sung every day. Not just in church either, but at home, in classrooms, hotel rooms, and unlikely public places. These words - unfamiliar to some, familiar in part to most, overfamiliar to some of us – are at the heart of our language and culture, whether we think ourselves secular or not. But how do we hear them? And how are they meant to be read?

The translator of this new version of the Gospels, Elizabeth Edwards, knows they were written to be read aloud. Her translation is “writing for speaking”, though she is motivated too by a desire for freshness, passion, and transparency, as well as a belief in the adult intelligence of the listener. She is a kindred spirit with the translators of the King James Version, their intention being to make a version of Scripture that spoke directly to any listener, with a true sense of the force and immediacy of the original. Like them, Edwards brings a lifetime of faith and scholarship to bear on the text. Her respect for the sources is paramount, her drive to make the sentences have their own impact is creative and learned. Listening brings inspiration.

The results are impossible to quote at length here, suffice to say Edwards throughout knows how to balance meaning and modern usage without straining for effect or playing to the gallery: “It is more feasible for the sky and the earth to disappear, than for one comma of the Law to fall.” (Luke 16, 17)  She may prefer plain sense to traditional use: “Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.” (Matthew 22, 21). She says of the Ten Virgins, “Five of them were silly and five were sensible.” (Matthew 25, 2). She shows how sometimes it really has to be spelt out: “He was in the world – the world which owed its very existence to him – and yet the world did not recognize him.” (John 1, 10)

Edwards’ husband, Bill Johnston, is a minister, poet and actor, a fortunate combination, for his skills in setting out the translation on the page for public reading are a secret of its success. Each phrase is given its own space, breath and pacing, consistent with contemporary English speech. Line layout catches the attention, builds momentum, or presses emphasis. Johnston delivers the craft of scripting while avoiding the pitfalls of theatricality.

The translator was also fortunate in having, like the Gospel writers themselves, a community of faith on which to try out her latest efforts. In this case it was the Montrose Uniting Church and blessed indeed were the members of that congregation to have heard for the first time renderings of the Koine Greek that get the urgency of the Gospel language in an idiom that is natural and vernacular.

Can anything good come out of Montrose? The Gospel itself, in a grammar and vocabulary, a form and presentation that speaks to us, anew. ‘The Gospels for Hearers’ is available for use in worship, theatre, school performance. But I find the text useful too for study of individual passages, due to the spacious page layout. Each verse is given its due, so I can consider the play and purpose of the words on their own. And perhaps most rewarding of all for the first-time reader of Edwards, there is the sheer shock of the new. Lovers of the Gospel enjoy being confronted and there is plenty here to make us think again about the beauties and paradoxes of the Greek, as well as the joy and wonder that Mark, Matthew, Luke and John (in that order in this version) were trying to tell their listeners, as though it were a matter of life and death.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Books to Have and to Hold

Philip Harvey

The New York Times writer Verlyn Klinkenborg posted an opinion piece, or should we say mood piece, on the tenth of August. He pondered the dual reading existence so many of us now travel, between e-book and book-book. Verlyn observes that when he shelves in the cloud the e-book he has just finished on his iPad “it vanishes from my ‘device’ and from my consciousness too.” He admits to finding this very odd. 

Thus he defines one of the critical frontiers of modern culture, one of the great imponderables that vexes librarians everywhere: how do people now read? What is happening to reading? This is not just a matter of print versus digital, but of the plethora of vehicles by which the words we read are now delivered. Do we spend more time at a computer doing light reading? Is the e-book the best way to carry our transitory reading or our work manuals? Would we still rather prefer the solid object the book as we spend the weekend deep in some Russian masterpiece? Isn’t it easier and more rewarding to read Tolstoy on the page than the screen?

The e-book has made us more conscious of what Verlyn calls bookness. “When I read a physical book, I remember the text and the book — its shape, jacket, heft and typography. When I read an e-book, I remember the text alone. The bookness of the book simply disappears, or rather it never really existed. Amazon reminds me that I’ve already bought the e-book I’m about to order. In bookstores, I find myself discovering, as if for the first time, books I’ve already read on my iPad.” 

Bookness itself is a little explored subject yet a pleasurable experience for all of us. I remember reading C.S. Lewis once where he confessed that he liked books not just for the contents but for their shape and smell and feel. This seemed an embarrassing admission to me at the time, until I had to admit to myself I felt similarly about books. One thing about an e-book is its ability to hold masses of text, but another is it’s the same old contraption every time. Each printed book has meanings associated with its content that are physical: look, design, smell, touch. These are unacknowledged meanings we take with us as part of the reading experience.

Our columnist is clearly concerned about how books ‘vanish’. When he looks at his own physical library something new happens: “They used to be simply there, arranged on the shelves, a gathering of books I’d already read. But now, when I look up from my e-reading, I realize that the physical books are serving a new purpose — as constant reminders of what I’ve read. They say, “We’re still here,” or “Remember us?” These are the very things that e-books cannot say, hidden under layers of software, tucked away in the cloud, utterly absent when the iPad goes dark.”

He apologises for what may seem like a trivial difference, but that’s not how it feels. I would go further than that. Books on my shelf are permanently available, they are there to be referred to at any time, they answer the prompts of the mind readily in a way that is not possible from something that has ‘vanished’. Books in our own library are our kingdom; it is fairly much up to us whether our manner of living with that kingdom be quixotic or platonic, borgesian or erasmian.

Verlyn Klinkenborg seems to have a mountaineering approach to books. When a book is finished “it is a monument to the activity of reading. It makes this imaginary activity entirely substantial.” He climbs Everest because it’s there. For him, books on a shelf are proof of having read all those books. (This claim can be questioned when we visit the homes of those who furnish their rooms with impressive books, but Verlyn obviously is not of that breed.) He brags about having read 800 book on his iPad too, as though they were so many foothills of the Himalayas. Yet he concludes with the sober and impressive discovery: “But the quiddity of e-reading is that it effaces itself.”

The weak link in his mood piece is the stated belief that “reading is inherently ephemeral.” If reading were simply a proof of how much you read, then maybe this is the case. But Verlyn is like many of us, enjoying a return to past books, picking out titles that meet a particular state either to be entertained or informed. It was the same C.S. Lewis who wrote that the really great books are the ones you want to re-read, and go on re-reading throughout your life. What’s the use of having them ‘vanish’? They should be on the shelf at all times. Because while a lot of reading is ephemeral, much reading is not ephemeral. All of our favourite reading, the words we want at the drop of a hat, should be close to hand in physical book form. At such times, and they are often, in my case every day, bookness is all.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Dante, The Inferno, Cantos 3 and 5

Will Johnston for 20 August 2013 at the Carmelite Library

The Ghosts of Paolo and Francesca Appear to Dante and Virgil (Ary Scheffer, 1835)

This synopsis apes the structure of the cantica’s 34 books, translating “Canto” as “Song.”

OUR SONG 1: Prologue (Proemium): Invocation of My Inspirers: Veronica Brady  [In Inf.  2: 8-10 Dante the Poet invokes the Muses and Memory (mente)] 

OUR SONG 2: Situating Ourselves in the Three Frames of Each Canto: a) Remote b) Outer c) Inner  
a)      The remote frame is Dante the Author’s life, esp. his unbroken exile 1302-1321
b)      The outer frame is Dante the Pilgrim’ journey through the three realms in cantos 2-100
c)      The inner frame is each canto’s precise location within either hell, purgatory, or paradise.

OUR SONGS 3 and 4: A Virgil of our own Meets Us in the Vestibule of Hell:
Sameul Taylor Coleridge’s Lecture of 1818 on the Seven Excellences of the Commedia
a)      Style of unsurpassed energy b) Images intelligible to all c) Profoundness that
“sends thoughts deep” rather than sublimity that “raises them higher”
d) “Picturesqueness” = Pictorial Imagining e) Topographic Reality 6) Mastery of pathos 7) Endless Subtle Beauties  [repr. in Michael Caesar, ed., Dante: The Critical Heritage 1314 (?) -1870 (London and NY: Routledge, 1989), pp. 439-447.

OUR SONGS 5 to 33: Overview of Inferno, cantos 1 -5
       Canto 1: Virgil invites Dante, still on earth, to overcome his mid-life crisis by journeying through the fire of hell. At first a bewildered Dante resists the invitation.
       Canto 2: Virgil tells how an unseen Beatrice took an initiative to despatch Lucy [“Light”] from heaven to persuade Virgil (dwelling in the Noble Castle of Canto 4) to rescue the languishing Dante. In exile he needs help to overcome his acedia (spiritual torpor).

      Canto 3 contains Seven “Firsts” of the Commedia: a) First sounds of hell: sighs (3:22)
b) First historical personage: Pope Celestine V, who resigned 13 December 1294, enabling the hated Boniface VIII (1294-1303) to become pope (Inf. 3:60: “il gran rifiuto”) c) First speech by a denizen of hell: the boatman Charon (3: 82-84)   d) Virgil invokes higher authority to silence Charon (3: 94-96) e) First two similes from nature: Autumn leaves falling and birds flying toward a hunter’s call (3: 112-117) f) Virgil’s first expression of affection for Dante the Pilgrim (“My son” 3: 121) g) Dante the Pilgrim’s first faint 5:136.

      Canto 4: Dante the Poet reconciles Pagan Ancients and Christian Moderns by commingling both types in Limbo (a place for the torpid, 4:45) as well as in the “Noble Castle” (4:106-107). He bases this seven-walled abode of ancient writers on Virgil’s Aeneid (20s BCE), where Aeneas’s Journey to the Underworld in Book 6 is conducted by a female figure, the Cumaean Sibyl, a precedent for Beatrice. The end of Virgil’s Book 6 describes the walled off Elysian Fields, where the shades of poets and philosophers discourse in incongruous groups.

      Canto 5: The Second Circle of Hell proper houses the Lustful (the Lascivious) and introduces the grinning Judge Minòs, who assigns each soul to its circle of hell (5: 9-10).
      First major Encounter with a Soul: Francesca da Rimini (murdered by her husband Gianciotto Malatesta in 1283 or 1284) accompanied forever by her wailing lover, Paolo, her husband’s younger and better looking brother  (5: 74-142). The pathos of Francesca causes Dante the Pilgrim to faint a second time. In lectures of 1373-74 Boccaccio told the story differently, making Francesca victim of a ruse which deceived her into mistaking her ugly husband-to-be with his brother Paolo. WHY DOES DANTE THE POET MAKE DANTE THE PILGRIM FAINT?      
OUR SONG 34: Re-Emerging from Hell: Three Audacities of Dante the Poet
a)      Daring to visit Hell and to return to tell of it.
b)      Stylizing Virgil, the all-knowing epic and didactic poet, into a literary character who serves as mentor and friend to Dante the Pilgrim. It takes two (motivated by a third) to visit Hell.
c)      Inventing a new rhyme scheme ababcbcdc (terza rima) and sustaining it for 14,200 lines, which subdue every kind of creature from demon to angel into speaking the new form of rhyme. Having everyone speak terza rima symbolizes submission to universal law, i.e. Dante the Poet’s law. The poet imposed on everyone a novel rhyme scheme at a time when rhyme itself was less than two centuries old. The first artificer of rhyme in the vernacular was the occitan troubador, Duke William IX of Aquitaine (1071-1127), whose compeers probably adapted rhyme from ninth-century Arab poets of Andalucia. The ancient Greeks and Romans did NOT use rhyme! None of Dante’s characters had ever heard terza rima!

A CRUX FOR INTERPRETERS   The name Beatrice derives from the Latin female noun of agency. A Beatrix is a woman “who makes someone blessed.” Although there is no male noun Beator, numerous other male-female pairs exist: e.g. Dominator, Dominatrix. Thus the name Beatrice designates not primarily a person but an agency, that of making someone else blessed. Accordingly, the literary character of Beatrice is not simply to be equated with the historical girl, Bice Portinari (d. 1285), whom Dante invoked in La vita nova (1292). By the time he wrote the Commedia fifteen years later, he had outgrown the simplistic courtly love of his early writings.      

RECOMMENDED INTERPRETATIONS of how Dante the poet’s Life shaped the Commedia
1980   William ANDERSON, Dante the Maker (London: Routledge Kegan Paul, 1980)   A learned wrestling with unresolved questions. Proposes an unusually late dating (after 1212) for when during exile Dante wrote the Commedia. Excels on similarities between devices in the Aeneid and in the Commedia: a) both rely on visual description and imagery of light b) dreams and visions abound c) the role of Venus as protectress parallels that of Beatrice d) monologues disclose character e) closely observed vignettes of nature convey mood f) style is direct.

1990  George STEINER in NYRB July 1990: “Virgil and Dante are talismanic and exemplary of …European self-consciousness and its singular contamination of Classical and modern, of pagan and Christian, of private and public modes. We [today] follow on diasater [and exile] as does Aeneas. The dead swarm to us with dire demands both of due remembrance and future resolve as they do in Book VI of the Aeneid [and in the Commedia]. We [too] are twilit, uneasy imperialists or exploiters of less privileged peoples…” Cited in Charles Martindale, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Virgil (Cambridge: CUP, 1997), p. 16.

2005  Harriet RUBIN, Dante in Love: The World’s Greatest Poem and How it Made History (NY: Simon and Schuster, 2005) An offbeat appraisal of Dante’s spiritual growth and its lessons for questers today. The tone is reminiscent of a book of self-help such as Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life (1998).

2006   Barbara REYNOLDS (1914-    ), Dante: The Poet, the Political Thinker, the Man (Lonbdon and NY: I.B. Tauris, 2006)   A well-argued rethinking of key questions, rooted in a Cambridge University scholar’s  lifetime of study both of her friend Dorothy Sayers and of Dante. Abounds in authoritative novel interpretations of obscure passages such as “tra feltro e feltro” [a phrase concerning manufacture of paper] (Inf. 1:105), pp.118-120.

 2011   A.N. WILSON, Dante in Love (London: Atlantic Books, 2011)  A labor of love based on forty years of reading by a master of high-level popularization.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Charity Begins at Home: or, Why Middle Park is called Middle Park

Philip Harvey
The larrikin priest of South Melbourne would say to his parishioners that here in South Melbourne we spread Vegemite on our toast, while over there in Middle Park they use caviar. An exaggeration, and I always thought Vegemite was the great leveller that cut through all class distinctions, but we can sort of see what Fr Bob Maguire was getting at in his sermon. South Melbourne is on the other side of the tracks. South Melbourne is dinky-di while Middle Park is select. Select, though Fr Bob was in no doubt about who was elect. Less partisan members of his congregation would have noted that Vegemite was invented by a doctor in Albert Park, the suburb in between. There is even a monument to this culinary breakthrough in the median strip of the thoroughfare that divides the suburbs, Kerferd Road.

The perception that Middle Park is distinctive goes back to the earliest residential days. At the turn of the century, after the bust of the nineties, allotments were being offered regularly and houses in Albert Park and Middle Park were more likely to be owned outright than rented. When the Mayor of South Melbourne, the Honorable John Baragwanath (a surname to conjure with in Melbourne history) spoke at the opening of the Middle Park Bowling and Recreation Club in 1905, he stated that “The Middle Park district had become the Toorak of South Melbourne.” Other sources then and since make clear that Middle Park is not a working class suburb. It is therefore not altogether surprising that in our search for the origins of the name, we are not mistaken in surmising that Middle Park really is middle in that sense of class distinction.

But all of this talk, including the words of historians, overlooks a simpler explanation for Middle Park that would have been obvious to people in the 19th century but not to people today. Peter Thomas, dedicated user of the Library, was walking in the area the other day and found himself standing before a large map at the outdoor Middle Park lightrail stop, formerly the Middle Park Railway Station. It is a grid map and when you draw a line through the middle of Albert Park Lake it goes straight through the station. Collective modern memory says that Albert Park is a suburb to the north of Middle Park, tending to overlook the fact that Albert Park is (or was) actually also the land all around the lake, what today we call Albert Park Reserve. In the 19th century the Park had been virtually all the land south of the river to St Kilda, and was even called South Park before being renamed after Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (in full, Francis Albert Augustus Charles Emmanuel), the Prince Consort, husband of Queen Victoria (1819-1861). Neither he nor his wife ever visited Albert Park.

Because if a railway on an embankment runs through a territorial park of heathland swamp, then if you decided to construct a railway station half way, it is sensible, though not very imaginative, to call it Middle Park. Especially so if there are no houses in the direct vicinity, and when Middle Park station opened in 1883 this was very much the case. Residences were going up in Kerferd Road and Canterbury Road, but not elsewhere in the area. Indeed, the government was still filling in holes and reclaiming the land from tide and flood. Though always open to correction, at this stage in the discussion I tend to believe that the suburb, which was not yet a suburb, was named Middle Park after the only physical sign of civilization at the time, the railway station. It’s that vague. Did people refer to their new found home in reference to the station? Or were they still calling themselves Albert Park? Or South Melbourne? Maybe not South Melbourne, for indeed the new station gave extra support to Fr Bob’s view that South Melbourne is on the other side of the tracks. Tracks were in fact built to divide the sea, and Middle Park, from inland South Melbourne.

Being middle class is not virtuous in itself and the discussion here simply extends our pursuit of the naming of Middle Park. It must be observed, nonetheless, that last year the results of the Australian census revealed something significant about this quiet if distinctive corner of Melbourne. The Age reported (24 October 2012) that “the residents of Middle Park in Melbourne and Lakes Entrance in Gippsland are the most generous in the nation, a report examining Australians’ donations to charity has found ... The figures, released yesterday, gave postcode-by-postcode breakdowns revealing the highest average donation in the country — with the people of wealthy Middle Park forking out the most each year at $334. At $276, the people of Vale Park, in South Australia, were the second-most generous followed by Killara, in New South Wales, at $242.68. But when the inaugural Charitable Giving Index calculated an area’s donations as a proportion of mean taxable income, the people of Lakes Entrance emerged as the most generous, giving 0.34 per cent of their income to charity last year. They were followed by Vale Park and Middle Park again, who donated 0.31 and 0.28 per cent of their incomes respectively.”

Clearly this is one area where Middle Park is not in the middle. But that’s not all. “Middle Park appeared on top of the list for highest donations, but also came in third nationally when this was calculated according to income. Sharon Torney, of Sacred Heart Mission in St Kilda, was not surprised at the results, saying the people of Middle Park were generous. ‘‘Most of our support comes locally, and with Middle Park being so close they are very supportive,’’ she said. Ms Torney said one Middle Park supporter had donated  his money and time to the group for more than a decade.‘‘ He’s one of our monthly givers, he also ran the Gold Coast marathon a couple of years ago and raised $19,000.’’


  Middle Park Bowling Club history. Compiled by David South. Online at

Middle Park History Group. ‘The Heart of Middle Park : Stories from a Suburb by the Sea.’ 2011.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Where did theology come from?

Date: Tue, 6 Aug 2013 09:23:35 +1000

Subject: [anztla-forum] Where did theology come from?

Hi Everyone,

Here's a question I've been asked and I'm just not sure where to find an answer... Can you help?

Where did theology come from? i.e. where did early theologians get their ideas for their theological thoughts from? Theology = study of God but are their ideas from their own personal revelations or is there somewhere they can be traced back to?

I know it's a bit of a weird question, but any help would be appreciated.

Thanks, have a great day.

Kerrie Stevens

And here is my reply to the anztla-forum, the e-list of the Australian and New Zealand Theological Library Association:

Where did theology come from? The very simplest answer to this question is that it came from people talking about God. In the Torah itself we read that the people of Israel know lots about the gods being worshipped in their area and that Moses has to get them to focus on the one true God. This in itself seems to me to be theology at work.

The word is Greek, from theos for God  and logos for meaning, so theology as a Greek practice comes into play a little later in geological time than Hebrew practice, but before Bethlehem. Aristotle, Plato and other Greeks did theology to explain ultimate Mysteries. This would have included subjects asked in Christian theology, though Galilee and its discontents were not on their radar. Theology in the sense of an intellectual discipline in the way we know it, and which our libraries serve, is not formally defined until the 12th century. This is helpful to know when we ask where did theologians get their ideas from, because people in the early church were not practising theology in the way we do now. One of the best ways of knowing how they did theology was through their worship. We know too that they were moved by the Spirit and not all of the theology of the spirit survives because it was judged unorthodox by later generations.                                                                 
Scripture itself is theology at work and certainly in normative Jewish and Christian tradition, Scripture (however defined) is essential in our ideas about theology. Scripture is both Revelation of God, there to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest, but it is also an incredible compendium of models of how God works. The parables, for example, awaken awareness and meaning within the individual, you and I wherever we are at. The ideas of early Christian theologians came first from their knowledge and experience of the miraculous and powerful life and works of the person Jesus. But I say ‘came first’ because from the start they are carrying around any amount of baggage, some of it highly durable, some of it lightweight, some of it made out of old weave. Much of this was cultural, the two largest influences being the Jewish and Greek traditions in which they were brought up. Even the Gospels and Epistles testify to the living encounter that Jesus and his followers had with the dominant paradigms of their society: ancient Judaism and the might of the Roman Empire. Theology is what they have to do to talk to others in a language that those others will understand.

The question of where we get our ideas from is a question too big to answer in plain prose. Out of our heads? It just popped into my mind? Blame it on our parents? There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so. Is that true or was Hamlet just having a bad day? We can track the history of an idea, sometimes over millennia, but where it came from or even how it changed is frequently mystifying. But tradition, again, is about the best answer to why ideas survive. Early Christians all had their personal experience of life, just like us, yet we must conclude that when it came to the revelation of the Gospel they all responded, making what they could of it, and generally agreeing about the main messages. The differences were, as today, on the emphasis. Another word for all the talk about eucharist, spirit, and the other manifestations of this way of life was Theology. It is a practice in process.