The Killing of Butterfly Joe- Rhidian Brook

iu

The Killing of Butterfly Joe defies categorisation. It’s of no known genre, original and unsettling. The reader has nothing to guide them, no comfortable stereotypes or clichéd plot lines to help them through.

When after 50 or so pages I told my wife I was not sure I could finish it, she agreed. She had given up at that point too. BUT I think she made a mistake.

The Killing of Butterfly Joe is described on the cover as a wild eyed crazy road trip across America. But that’s just an attempt to classify it, to put it in a mould and make it easier for the reader to digest. It’s not a road trip at all.

The Killing of Butterfly Joe is the story of a broken family, and about what it means to grow up. Lew, aged 23,  visits his aunt in the Catskills, New York state. Dozing over a novel by the riverside he is entranced by the appearance of Butterfly Joe and his semi-naked female accomplice. They steal his book, only to return it later, and invite him to work for their family business selling butterflies.

Lew agrees. They christen him Rip after the hero of the stolen book, and he goes to live in their ramshackle gothic house in the mountains. But it’s not a gothic tale despite the fact that Joe’s mother is a disfigured monster. She was scorched and scarred in a house fire because Joe rescued his father’s butterfly collection first, having been told by his dad how valuable it was. Only then did he pull his mother out of the flames!

The father is long gone, abandoning his family so he can collect and study lepidoptera. The mother is bitter and angry, and will have no mention of him in the house. She has poisoned her children against him.

There are two sisters. The first is the  water nymph, erotic and sexy. The second, Isabelle is more prudish. Puritan might be a better word, moral would be best. The protagonist learns through experience what these differences mean, and eventually realises which is for him.

But these two are minor characters. The book is about Joe, a larger than life figure with a comic kind of verbal diarrhoea and challenging philosophical views. Joe really does tithe, giving away ten percent of all he earns, but never to a charity or an official organisation. He is generous to ordinary people, not always the poor. It’s just the abundance of God.

Rhidian Brook is a regular contributor to Thought for the Day, a five minute slot on Radio 4 morning news. Butterfly Joe fits this mould: he is not perfect but has a Christian message for the modern world. He shows disdain for organised religion and the hypocrisy of institutions, and is in touch with the truth and spirit of the gospel. Of course this is especially relevant in the USA where organised religion has become so politicised and moral rules so entwined with social conformity.

I liked the way the character of Joe challenged orthodoxy in this way. The ideas were not new, but the message was clear and pretty sound.

Joe is desperate to make a living from his father’s butterflies. He sells parts of the collection, and breeds more, setting them in display boxes in the family house, which is also a butterfly factory. But on the road, selling, he won’t bend to the rules. That would be to give in to convention, and to deny his version of the truth. It’s inevitable that he will land in trouble, and he does. He is jailed, accused of selling mounted specimens of rare and protected species. Rip decides the only solution is to find Joe’s father who had collected the specimens in the 60s, before it became illegal.

Rip is confident he can reunite the family and rescue Joe at the same time, but he discovers that this might not be as easy as he thinks. Feelings run deep, and he is in over his neck.

The Killing of Butterfly Joe is a first person narrative, written by Rip in his jail cell. This device does create some suspense in fairly obvious ways, but I wasn’t really gripped by that, and the plot and resolution is a bit weak.

But this is a book about character and ideas. And they are interesting. The characters embody moral values in a simple way: eros and agape, motherhood, compassion. But there is more than that. Joe is complex, broken by his father’s absence. Mary, eros, needs to be loved. Isabelle also wants to please her father, even though she refuses to meet him when she has the chance.

In this respect The Killing of Butterfly Joe is a book about families, about what they mean, and how important they are, how they make us what we become.

 

 

 

Advertisements

Dirty Glory – Pete Greig

Unknown

Dirty Glory, or Red Moon Chronicles#2, is a sequel to Red Moon Rising, and brings the reader up to date with the story of the continuing growth of the 24/7 prayer movement.

Pete Greig has an exceptional ability to bring a scene or a situation to life with a few key words or a vivid description, and this makes the stories he tells in this book credible and vivid for the reader.

He had begun as a child to pray in faith, and he describes the experiences which taught him that God was real, and that prayer could be answered.

On holiday as a young man in Portugal, at the most western point in Europe, Greig had a vision in which he saw thousands of ghostly figures rising up in prayer. He did not understand the meaning of this at the time, though it was to become clear to him in later years when he was involved in founding the 24/7 prayer movement.

In this book Greig fills in the details of the growth of 24/7 as it expanded its work into Mexico, Ibiza and the USA. The book is autobiographical, and Greig offers many personal insights. As new characters are introduced he tells the stories of how they came to God, always with the emphasis on prayer, the Bible, and God’s presence and support. There are striking stories here that show God is not concerned with past mistakes or bourgeois conformity, and Greig has a knack of bringing the characters to life with wit and humour. He is not an ordinary writer, and has considerable talent.

Greig describes his arrival in the USA where he went to develop the movement, and shares the problems he and his wife faced with family illness. She developed a brain tumour, which was an incredible challenge, to say the least! Meanwhile his infant son swallowed some of the very powerful tablets prescribed for her condition, yet miraculously avoided death. For Greig, God was always there during the trials.

Dirty Glory gives many examples of people brought to faith, and shows the power and influence of prayer in this respect.

In one university residence, due to the prayers of a single student, every member gave their life to Christ. Elsewhere a young woman set off alone to a Mexican border town to pray for the prostitutes and drug dealers living there in a neglected ghetto. It seemed a hopeless task, but she remained for eighteen months, continued to pray, and slowly became aware of the transforming effect her words were having on the lives of the inhabitants.

For Greig, Europe is the most difficult missionary field of our time. In Ibiza many young people were saved from the dangerous consequences of their own actions. Rather than being left in a vulnerable position when found helpless, ill or drunk on the streets, they were ferried back to hotels, or given other kinds of support. Gospels were distributed, and though not always used appropriately, or fully understood by the recipients, the scheme impacted on a group that is hard to reach.

The tattooed and pierced new Christians in Ibiza were not always welcomed in the local churches and so a new church was established for them. Greig explains how God was present in the decision to go ahead with this project, showing how if we listen, pray, and read the Bible, it becomes easier for God to guide us.

Greig has shown incredible faith in his own life, and explains that faith and prayer have a key role to play in the world today. The answers to prayer in the Bible were not just of their time: God is here now and will act.

This book is called Dirty Glory because Christ was here in the flesh. He had dirt in the creases of his hands, and made tables. At first, Greig claims, he probably did not make them very well!! Christ is there with us in the coal face, or the chalk face of life. Wherever it is you spend your day, that is where you are his representative, where you are his hands. You need to get them dirty for him – get involved.

God is not interested in religious activity for its own sake, but in righteousness and justice – I despise your religious assemblies – your festivals are a stench to me…But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never failing stream Amos 5: 21-23

 

 

 

 

 

The Little World of Don Camillo – Giovanni Guareschi

Unknown

The Little World of Don Camillo is set in the Po valley after the end of WW2 – about 1948 – but these short stories are all fables and have a broader relevance.

Don Camillo is a Catholic priest and former resistance fighter – though he’s a man of peace now – the days in the resistance are well behind him.  He’s a powerfully built man with strong arms and a temper to match.  His rival is Peppone, the communist mayor of the village, and Don Camillo’s equal physically. The two pose and fight like rutting stags.

The Po valley is a magical place where rural pastimes continue unabated and the world of the city and the twentieth century don’t intrude.  In the real world it’s the time of the Marshall Plan, American financial aid given to Europe to promote American policies, and Stalin also has his eyes on Italy.  This battle of political ideas is fought in microcosm in the valley, where Peppone, the communist mayor sells the party newspaper, L’Unita, and Don Camillo quietly confides in Jesus, to whom he speaks every day in the parish church.

In the end this book isn’t about politics.  Its values go much deeper, and Peppone and Don Camillo have more than they realise to unite them.  When family love, and death, and illness intrude into the lives of the villagers both characters are called on to intervene. They find common cause and a common humanity in the face of suffering and crisis. When Peppone’s son is ill he brings candles to the church, but can’t bring himself to acknowledge his dependence on God.  Out of love, Don Camillo borrows money to buy candles and light them for Peppone.

Guareschi claims that the Jesus on the cross in this story is really his own conscience.  He portrays Don Camillo as a completely human character, ever in need of the guiding hand of that conscience.  Much of the humour in the book comes from the clash between Don Camillo’s religious ideals and his very human weaknesses and behaviour.

The situations faced by Don Camillo,  Peppone and all the other characters in the book are so very human and universal that we can easily empathise with them.  Guareschi has a light and humorous touch, finding the bright gems of human feeling amidst the debris of everyday life, and reminding us that too often dogma and pride can get in the way of truth and light.

I first read these stories many years ago – I must have been about 12 at the time.  I loved them then because they were simple, funny, entertaining.  The short story isn’t a genre I really like, but here all the stories are linked by a common theme and by recurring characters.  It’s not a book that’s easily available in a hard copy – I downloaded from Kindle for about £5.  Well worth it.  There are more volumes available, and I expect I’ll read them soon.

The Little World of Don Camillo is quite well known, and was made into a television programme.  Here is a link to it on Youtube, with English audio.  The stories were originally published in an Italian satirical magazine called Candido.  Apparently it had a monarchist stance!!  The monarchy is only mentioned in one of these stories.  As I said, its values go beyond politics.

The Little World of Don Camillo – Youtube

From Eternity to Here – Sean Carroll

Unknown

From Eternity to Here is a “popular” science book with a “witty” literary allusion in its title, clearly an attempt to intrigue, and to broaden the readership.

I have to admit an interest in these sort of popular scientific books – there are some others reviewed on this blog.  I don’t always understand all of them, and its often pretty frustrating to follow a complex argument only to find that, sometimes, an arcane piece of mathematics puts the whole idea out of reach.  At other times writers can explain the most complex ideas very well, but make assumptions about some of the simpler points that still leave me with unanswered questions. Then I’d really like the writer to be there with me!

From Eternity to Here is pretty good at leaving out the maths, but less so on the other issue.  In very brief summary it’s an attempt to explain the direction of the arrow of time – from past to present – by referring to the current state of scientific and philosophical thinking.  Carroll looks at Einstein and Newton, at cosmology and quantum mechanics, at black holes and the big bang, and summarises Hawking and others.  It seems pretty comprehensive and whilst I’d read much the same in other books such as Simon Singh’s Big Bang and Manjit Kumar’s Quantum, this one did offer new insights and explain some things in ways that helped me to understand.  The explanation of quantum mechanics and the way that uncertainty plays a part as scientists attempt to describe the universe was especially helpful, as was the explanation of string theory, if only I could still remember what it was!

The main way in which From Eternity to Here offers a new (to me) approach is that the primary focus is on entropy – the tendency of energy to become dissipated, to move from order to chaos.  This gives Carroll lots of scope for analogy – often to do with breaking eggs or stirring milk into cups of tea.  Once broken they don’t re-form: the arrow of time moves consistently on, with energy moving from a low entropy state – the singularity at the big bang – to a high entropy state – chaos and disorder.  But the question is how did we get to have the low entropy state in the first place?

Now most of us know that there’s an answer to this in the Bible, though many choose to be sceptical:

Genesis Book 1 – see below

I suppose the question is, in the end, does Carroll offer a solution that’s any better, or if not, can he hope to?

I’ve always felt that the explanation of the creation in Genesis is the most convincing in the ancient world.  There are no strange gods with anvils, no animals giving birth to the world. It begins: there was darkness, God created light, he saw that it was good, and separated the dark from the light.  The Big Bang fits quite neatly with this idea of a moment of creation.  Next come water and dry land, then plants, next sea creatures, then land creatures, and then man. Actually, the heavenly bodies were created after the plants, but I don’t think that defeats the argument.  This order of things is pretty much in line with what evolution and the Big Bang theory would propose – at least I don’t see Genesis as excluding evolution unless you are a complete literalist.  Life came from the sea, we are told:

Where did life originate?

How did the writers of the Bible get the order so right?  And can Carroll offer any better, or any hope for improvement?

Well his ideas focus on the existence of multi-verses.  The idea that we may be part of one small universe in an infinity of universes.  This is a common idea in modern science and apparently some of the maths points that way.  But where does this idea take us?  How scientific is it?  How much can we rely on it?

Firstly, read Carroll in his own words:

This is the scenario suggested by Jennifer Chan and me in 2004.  We started by assuming the universe is eternal – the Big Bang is not the beginning of time. That means we can start with any state we like.  (p412 ONEWORLD Edition)

This hypothesis is about as far as it goes.  Carroll comes up with quite a nice idea about how we could be inhabiting just one universe among many in a way that explains away the riddle of entropy.  But that’s just what it is – a nice idea.  He even admits that at the moment there doesn’t seem any possibility that we could find a scientific proof of his hypothesis: after all science is based on testing different hypotheses by close observation and measurement – but how can we possibly observe other universes that, if they exist, are separated from us by the very laws of physics.  Carroll admits this seems impossible but says that developments in science may bring the feat within our reach.

In the end it seems to me we have two alternatives, and both involve belief, or faith.  We can believe in science and its ability to solve all questions with logic and measurement, or we can believe in the Bible and what it says about creation, and indeed about life.

When I was a boy I imagined the vastness of the universe and asked the question – what happens when you get to the end?  I imagined a metal wall – like the inside of a tank or a submarine.  And then I wondered what was outside the tank.  I asked my parents – but they couldn’t answer this question, and neither can Carroll.

The Bible gives an answer that seems suffused with scientific wisdom and understanding going way beyond what we might expect from such a primitive, unscientific age.  It far exceeds any other ancient creation myth in its simple clarity, in its lack of circularity and its apparent scientific accuracy.  I’m not a young man anymore, and for me this element of wisdom and insight is just one example of the way the Bible offers wise solutions to life’s problems.  My experience tells me that the Bible contains infinite wisdom, and that following it leads to health and prosperity.

We should all read it more and take notice – it’s God reaching out his loving hand to the world he created.

The Preposterous Universe – Sean Carroll’s Website

Goodreads Review

Who Moved the Stone – Frank Morison

Unknown

This is a short but incisive account of the last days of Jesus written by a sceptic with a scientific and logical mind set, and a complete disbelief in miracles.

The author sets out to examine the documentary evidence about the resurrection with the intention of debunking what he considers to be a myth.  Close analysis of the gospels causes him to change his mind.  He examines each part of the crucifixion story, beginning with the arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, and looking closely at the events as recorded in the gospels, at the psychological motivations of the characters, and at the cultural setting of the time.

Morison begins with an examination of the case against Jesus, and the wrangling between the Roman and Jewish authorities about his guilt.  In this section he argues that the evidence against Jesus was flimsy to non-existent, and that in securing his execution the Jewish leaders played fast and loose with the traditions of Judaism, ignoring the importance to Jewish Law of the sanctity of human life.   He goes on to describe the time that Jesus spent in the garden before his arrest, suggesting that he was deliberately delaying his departure in anticipation of the arrival of the arresting party.  Morison suggests that there were many delays caused because the pharisees needed to come to an arrangement with Pilate to put Jesus to trial before sundown the next day, so that the whole business could be expedited before the beginning of the Passover.

There is a close analysis of the trial which sews together the events from all the gospels and casts interesting light on the motives of Pilate and Caiaphas leading up to the final accusation that Jesus claimed he was King of the Jews.  The role of Pilate’s wife is considered, along with the motivation for Pilate’s refusal to remove the sign saying “This is the King of the Jews”.  The following chapter looks at the crucifixion itself, considering common views such as that in the Quran – that Christ was not dead but taken down alive from the cross.  The last half of the book moves forward in time 36 hours, examines the events surrounding the tomb and considers the different gospel versions.  He looks at the role of the women in discovering the empty tomb, and considers the whereabouts of the different disciples, telling the story from the points of view of Peter, James and Paul, and drawing conclusions about the identity of the man in the tomb who speaks to the women when they first arrive.  He concludes with a clear summary stating that the weight of evidence is clearly in favour of the gospels being true accounts rather than legends later imposed on the event.

Some people have objected to Morison favouring the Gospel of Mark as the earliest, and thus closest to a factual account, saying that all the gospels should be given equal weight as the inspired word of God.  I imagine they find his occasional reference to the apocryphal gospels such as Peter even less welcome!!  The fact is that Morison was writing in the 1930s and was responding to the textual approach of the German critics whose aim was to subject the Bible to critical analysis; the significance of scientific criticism of religion was also an influence on his thinking – his early ideas were influenced by Huxley and Matthew Arnold who were of the post Darwinian generation, so we need to see Morison as a man of his time.  In any case the Bible is a collection of different types of books, and to understand each one we do need to think about textual issues such as the use of metaphor.

In the end of course faith, belief and obedience are all we have, but it’s clearly enough – that’s what God says throughout the Old Testament, and that’s what Jesus says in the New.  Morison’s approach is a delight.  He writes logically and argues his case with grace and insight.  The account brings to life the final days of Jesus in a way that is very hard to do for people like me, who have read and heard the accounts frequently but never given this amount of thought to the very fine details, and to the exact sequence of events.

To me there are many things unanswered in the Bible – we have to trust God and not expect to be able to explain everything in a rational way, and there are a couple of holes in Morison’s logic – especially with respect to the man in the tomb, who he sees as the gardener, coincidentally also present at Gethsemane.  Nevertheless this was a fascinating and interesting account of the final days of Jesus and one that would repay the effort taken to read it – both as an inspiration to faith and as a model of how to write with clarity and logic.

Link to e-book

Tom Holland – In the Shadow of the Sword

Unknown

The subtitle of this book is The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World.  It focuses on the story of the Middle East in the period between the fall of the Roman Empire and the establishment of Islam, considering the historical development of the two major faiths, and the political and military events of the period.  The rise of Islam is seen as a consequence of the power vacuum caused by the decline of Roman and Persian empires.

I have read 3 other books by Tom Holland – Persian Fire, Rubicon and Millennium: I enjoyed all of these, and especially the first two, which were about two periods that I was quite familiar with.  Not everyone is as impressed – some claiming that the books are overburdened with unnecessary facts.  I could see this criticism as valid with respect to In the Shadow of the Sword: Holland ranges widely, dealing with the conflicts between Persia and Rome, as well as the historical background of the Arab world, and offers detailed analysis of the two faiths, considering the development of both the Christianity and Islam as determined by history rather than God.

Holland is brave in his account of the development of Islam, claiming that the links between Mohammed and the final version of Islam codified over a hundred years later, during the early part of the Islamic empire, are tenuous and undocumented.  This proved controversial, with Islamists claiming Holland had only studied western texts, that he had not considered all the historical documents available in the Middle East: that he was biased.  A private showing of the accompanying film, Islam, the Untold Story by Channel 4was cancelled due to security concerns.

As a Christian it’s interesting, and also a little confusing, to read about the historical development of faith.  He claims the dominance of one form of belief is merely a consequence of history.  Sometimes the distinctions seem small, yet complicated: I had to re-read the sections about monophysites whenever the phrase recurred in the text, just to get the idea clear in my head.

In the end I suppose the theology left me quite confused, but the story of the development of the Islamic empire and of the decline of Rome and Persia is full of battles, of heroes and villains, of all the stuff of great historical narrative.  For this reason it’s worth reading.

The Guardian – a very critical review of this book