Book reviews

Bamboo Palace, Christopher Kremmer.
HarperCollins, 2003. isbn 0 7322 7756 6, rrp $29.95

An investigative journey through the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Christopher Kremmer attempts to find out what happened to the Lao royal family, deposed after the Vietnam war.

Kremmer spends three months travelling through Laos, asking questions. The only replies, however, are whispers—contradictory whispers. What he hears speaks not only of the fragility of life, but of the fragility of a people and their culture.

The author tells the story of the Lao royal puppets, locked away and languishing. Yet for one performance, the puppeteer painstakingly unwraps each one, and ceremoniously brings them to life. Kremmer’s description is exquisite. Here he has found the metaphor for the royal family. We glimpse another world, another time—destroyed by the post-1975 Lao revolution.

Kremmer—journalist and author of The Carpet Wars—has been in many hot spots around the globe, yet he believes it’s in ‘cold spots’ (places no longer making news) that some of the best stories can be found.

In Bamboo Palace, Kremmer searches for the universal voice, ‘one of thousands lost in the abyss of war and revolution: a voice of resilience and survival and faith.’ He finds it, in the testimony of Khamphan

Thammakhanty, a salt trader’s son—the last known survivor of the royal death camp.

It is Khamphan’s testimony—worthy of a book in its own right—which is gripping. The author’s travelogue serves simply as a device to hold the more powerful story.

Michele M. Gierck

The Suicidal Church: Can the Anglican Church be Saved?, Caroline Miley. Pluto Press, 2002.
isbn 1 86403 182 4, rrp $29.95

Kierkegaard railed against the passionless Christianity of his culture and in his last years launched an impassioned critique of the institutional church in Denmark. As can often be the case, his passionate arguments received a passionate response—of denial.

Caroline Miley, an academic art historian, has launched her own vehement attack on the church in The Suicidal Church.

Kierkegaard found that society and the church were too integrated in his time. Miley has found that the Anglican church of modern Australia instead is becoming peripheral to most people and losing the trust of society. Her language protects her from any charge of passionless Christianity: Miley writes as a person betrayed. She has sought an expression of Christ in the church and instead found an expression of human Christians.

As the church is an organisation of human beings this will always be the case. As the church is an organisation called to be the demonstration of Christ it will always be challenged to be more than this.
While you might disagree with Miley’s proposed solutions to the challenges faced by the Anglican church, her summary of its problems is impossible to ignore.

Her passionate writing naturally evokes a passionate response, and hopefully also radical change. It would be wrong if her book led instead to a passionate denial of the need for such a critique or for investigating radical solutions.

Daniel Marti

The Lowest Rung: Voices of Australian Poverty,
Mark Peel. Cambridge University Press, 2003. isbn 0 521 83062 1, rrp $99

In doing away with analyses of income and poverty lines, Mark Peel restores the story of poverty to the people who wake up to it everyday. By listening to them relate their anger and despair, and even their hopes, he highlights the truth behind lived experiences and places his trust in that truth.

Through conversations with nearly 300 people living and working in Inala (Qld), Mount Druitt (NSW) and Broadmeadows (Vic), Peel works away at the image of the poor person as welfare cheat. He looks closely at media reports and the inaccuracies that have created the image, and further exposes a mistrustful welfare system that has become preoccupied with the politics of ‘deserving’.

On the whole, the book seeks to demystify the poor by letting them speak for themselves. Sections of transcript are liberally scattered throughout its pages. It makes for compelling reading, because people are presented as they are; their words raw and  undiluted. It can be unnerving as well, when one considers that this is not a work of fiction.

Fatima Measham

Flesh and Glory: symbol, gender, and theology in the Gospel of John,
Dorothy Lee. Crossroad, 2002. isbn 0 8245 1981 7, rrp $27.50

That prepotent document, the Fourth Gospel, is a challenge to the imagination and a conundrum to literal-mindedness. In the evolution of scriptural history, its confidence in its own terms of reference is a defining point for centuries of interpretation. As a refinement of the Gospel form it can be baffling as well as inspirational. John is packed with statements of finality (‘I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life’) that simultaneously open up a poetics of existence. Dorothy Lee delves into this symbolic language, founding her search in the belief that ‘because the Fourth Gospel is clear that the being of God is beyond human categories and imagery, symbol becomes the most appropriate language for revelation. It does not attempt to exhaust or imprison the divine being.’

Inside every big book of theology is a thin book of spirituality struggling to get out. Lee restores an interpretative tradition that reads the text ‘symbolically, theologically, prayerfully, and communally’. She shows how John’s literary technique pushes us into identification with his characters and images, bringing us face-to-face with Jesus, the central subject. ‘The struggle to move through misunderstanding to understanding becomes the reader’s own faith story’, and though Lee never personalises her writing, it is this kind of reading that propels the book.

It can be read purely as an exposition of the symbols, such as the living water, the vine and most confronting of all, Jesus’ flesh, but Lee is interested in the reality enabled by the symbols. The Gospel provokes reactions and Lee’s words come out of communal discussion of those reactions, meanwhile avoiding a specialist approach and its companion language as much as possible. Paul Ricoeur has the dangerous saying ‘The symbol gives rise to thought’, a pivotal clue to this creative book, and its creative challenge.

Philip Harvey



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