Australia and New Zealand Mini Series Part 7: Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary, Gold Coast, Queensland

This is the seventh in my series of short reflections on different places in Australia and New Zealand, which I visited in November 2019.

Map of Australia and New Zealand

In our November 2019 visit, we found Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary just a short walk around the corner from our accommodation at Currumbin Sandcastles, Gold Coast. The sanctuary is popular with families and has many attractions for young children including a ‘Meet the Gruffalo‘ area – though we didn’t include that on our day’s itinerary.

There is plenty to fascinate visitors of all ages with a wide variety of birds and animals to delight and amaze, along with an Aboriginal Culture Show. The sanctuary also enchants visitors with its magnificent rainforest landscaping, boardwalks and waterfalls.

The sanctuary is famous for its lorikeet feeding opportunity, and on my past visits here I’ve experienced thousands of these exquisite birds swooping down to feed from the dishes of honey held by visitors. Sadly, on this occasion, we noticed a much smaller number of lorikeets; whatever the reasons for this, we felt sad to see the reduction in numbers.

Like Australia Zoo, the Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary offers many opportunities to learn about wildlife, and on this visit we were captivated by the Crocodile Behaviours Show. Here we learned intriguing things about the large crocodile in the enclosure. He had been relocated from his previous environment, where he had proved a danger to local livestock and had finally sealed his fate (not such a bad one) by preying on an expensive prize bull.

We learned that crocodiles have inbuilt ear-plugs and nose-clippers, and can stay immersed and invisible in muddy water using their nostrils as snorkels. So they can drown their vicitims whilst avoiding drowning themselves in the process. Another fascinating fact about crocodiles is that they can live for up to a year without eating anything.

However, that day, the crocodile was clearly in the mood for a snack because the keeper fed him on a chicken dangled from a line on a rod; and he was happy to eat it.

If you visit the Gold Coast, do include a visit to the Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary on your itinerary.

SC Skillman

psychological, suspense, paranormal fiction & non-fiction

My next book, Paranormal Warwickshire

will be published by Amberley Publishing on 15th June 2020

and is available for pre-order now from Amazon.

Australia and New Zealand Mini Series Part 6: Australia Zoo

This is the sixth in my series of short reflections on different places in Australia and New Zealand, which I visited in November 2019.

Map of Australia and New Zealand

Australia Zoo is one of the jewels of Queensland; I’ve visited it a number of times during different periods of time spent in Australia. Not only is it a shining example of animal conservation, and of education about respect for and protection of wildlife, but it is also a superlative tourist attraction.

I believe that one of its strongest attributes is the personal nature of the organisation, owned by the Irwin family. Some may even view the prominence of the family members as a little like a ‘personality cult’. And yet the emphasis upon Steve Irwin and the work he did, and now upon his window Terri, daughter Bindi, her fiance Chandler, and her photographer brother Robert, only serves to enhance the profile of the zoo and the profoundly important work it does.

When you visit Australia Zoo, not only are you guaranteed a good day out, and the chance to see and admire a magnificent collection of wild animals, but you also learn about how to interact with wild creatures in a more respectful, understanding and compassionate way. The famous Crocoseum performance always includes a teaching element, especially about how to deal with snake encounters.

This is of course more likely to be relevant for Australians than for those living in the UK. And yet, it becomes relevant the more you travel around the world. Interestingly enough, the correct way for us to behave towards snakes is often counter-intuitive. If you meet a snake across your path, stop, turn, and walk very slowly and calmly away. If you get a snakebite, remain still, (assuming you have someone who can call for help). The more you move around and panic, the more easily the poison can move through your system.

If you visit Queensland, do include a visit to Australia Zoo on your itinerary.

SC Skillman

psychological, suspense, paranormal fiction & non-fiction

My next book, Paranormal Warwickshire

will be published by Amberley Publishing on 15th June 2020

and is available for pre-order now from Amazon.

Cornwall mini series Part 3: The Eden Project

This is the third in a series of short reflections on places in Cornwall.

There will be few words, and mainly images.

The Eden Project is now famous for its extraordinary vision, which emerged from the original idea of one man, Tim Smit. And now it is a glorious display of the wonders of this earth: both natural, and man-made.

A visit here will inspire you with new faith in the human race. It also warns us of what a precious, fragile treasure we have in our hands, as stewards of the planet earth.

Above all, just come here to wonder, to imagine, to feel joy and inspiration.

SC Skillman

psychological, paranormal and mystery fiction and non-fiction.

My next book ‘Paranormal Warwickshire’ will be published on 15th June 2020 by Amberley Publishing.

Book Review: the Girl with Seven Names: Escape From North Korea by Hyeonseo Lee

A powerful, emotionally engaging and sometimes shocking account by a very courageous woman.

The Girl with Seven Names – Escape From North Korea by Hyeonseo Lee

Through her own shrewdness, presence of mind and intelligence, Hyeonseo managed to transform her life and that of her family by escaping from North Korea at the age of 17, undergoing a long and hazardous journey through China, and ultimately gaining South Korean citizenship status for them all 12 years later – and then marrying an American (“one of the reviled Yankee jackals of North Korean propaganda”.) She also saved her mother and brother, guiding them on the same arduous journey she had herself taken through China and onto Laos to seek asylum at the South Korea embassy.

Some of the most shocking details in this account come from the author’s description of life inside North Korea under the control of Kim Il-sung (‘Great Leader’ who founded North Korea); and his son Kim Jong-il ‘Dear Leader’ – to whom was attributed a nativity story very similar to that of Jesus Christ (though the brainwashed population of North Korea weren’t to know that).

Hyeonseo shares with us what the North Korean people were told: that his birth was foretold by miraculous signs in the heavens, including the appearance of a bright new star in the sky. From early childhood she and her classmates were encouraged to draw pictures of the snow-covered wooden cabin of his birth with the sacred mountain behind it and the new star in the sky. They came to associate the Great Leader and the Dear Leader with gifts and excitement in the same way that children in the West think of Santa Claus.

She was in South Korea at the time Kim Jong-un took over and this time she was at a safe distance viewing on TV the crowds she herself had once been forced to stand among, weeping at the death of the god-like predecessor, knowing that guards circulated among them ready to mete out severe punishments to anyone who was faking it.

In fact the first time her beliefs about North Korea ‘the greatest nation on earth’ were challenged, was through the impassioned outburst of her uncle Jung-jil, her father’s cousin, whose family had fled North Korea during the Korean War and now lived in Shenyang 8 hours drive into China.

The details the author gives of life inside North Korea, worshipping the Great Leader and the Dear Leader, are stunning. Amongst the highlights are these facts: everyone had to display on the walls of their homes a trio of air-brushed portraits: The Great Leader, The Dear Leader, and the Dear Leader’s first wife, also accorded almost god-like status. Everyone had to keep this trio of portraits in pristine condition – or risk severe punishment by white-gloved government inspectors who would visit monthly to find any specks of dust.

The author describes many other extraordinary events which are a simple fact of life in North Korea, such as the summary executions; the year-long rehearsals by thousands of schoolchildren for the mass display of the Leaders’ portraits; the hierarchy of society determined by one’s family history of loyalty to the Leaders.

She also gives a harrowing description of the famine that gripped North Korea in the mid 1990s when more than a million people died, and she recalls walking past a train station and seeing a dead woman in her early twenties lying on the pavement clutching an emaciated child to her, and being ignored by all who walked past. And she describes the lies of the Great Leader, who claimed in his propaganda broadcasts that he shared the suffering of his people, and was confining himself only to riceballs, to show his solidarity with them – yet remained as portly and well-fed as ever.

The other outstanding fact is the very low regard held for truth or historical fact; the fact that government officials can be bribed with money to do anything – including changing official records.

But even the details of life inside North Korea are not necessarily the most shocking thing in this story. For me, that honour is held by the callous behaviour of those people in China and Laos, who hold it in their power either to show compassion for North Korean defectors, or to destroy their lives. For many of them, not one simple act of common human decency can be carried out without a demand for money. The cruel and inhuman attitude that prevails towards North Korean defectors is sickening, to a Western reader.

Hyeonseo had to bribe her way through China, in order to save herself. Her journey was a journey through the vast underworld of people smugglers, Chinese ‘brokers’, fake IDs, false documents and changed records: all at considerable financial cost to herself and to those family members who were kind enough to transfer money to her (which she later paid back in full). It is truly a chilling vision of humanity to see corruption so deeply woven into a society, infecting everyone, every human interaction.

So when Hyeonseo encounters the Australian, Dick Stolp, and he shows her the generosity and compassion born of altruism, which is so severely lacking elsewhere in her experience, it comes across as a miracle. Interestingly, she was praying to the spirits of her ancestors for help just before he approached her in a coffee bar.

Through this account, sometimes harrowing and upsetting, Hyeonseo’s character shines, together with her love for and devotion to her mother and brother. She demonstrates brilliant presence of mind when she distracts the guard on the bus who is, contrary to expectations, checking everyone’s IDs and studying their faces, and she saves her brother from capture (for he has at this time no ID).

Another very impressive scene is when she is interrogated by an official who is determined to find out if she is North Korean. He looks deep into her eyes and asks her all sorts of tricky questions, but she ends up convincing him she is Chinese. This is largely because of the foresight of her father years before who insisted on her learning Mandarin – which she now speaks without any trace of a North Korean accent.

As you read the book you cannot help feeling that she is a total inspiration, not purely as a successful North Korean defector, but as a woman in her own right, with immense strength of character and inner resources.

After so many traumatic details in this account, it is good to read at the end how things are changing now, due to the international exposure Hyeonseo achieved after her February 2013 TED talk. She writes that some of the most inspiring messages she received afterwards came from China – a country which she says she loves but where she suffered many hardships – many of the messages expressing their writers’ shame at the complicity of their government in hounding escaped North Koreans.

Even after all that happened, her mother and her brother were sorely tempted to return to North Korea – such is the love people can have for their homeland, despite all other circumstances.

It is particularly poignant to read at the end of her account, these words: “Among the 27,000 North Koreans in the south, two kinds of life have been left behind: the wretched life of persecution and hunger, and the manageable life that was not so bad…. for the second group life in the South is far more daunting. It often makes them yearn for the simpler, more ordered existence they left behind, where big decisions are taken for them by the state, and where life is not a fierce competition.”

These words are particularly astute because they reflect what some people from East Berlin felt after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The irony is that for some, life under a totalitarian regime can be simpler, with far fewer options, all big decisions made for them by the State. This is something they prefer to what we might call “freedom.” This is a paradox we would all do well to muse upon and always to hold in mind.

SC Skillman, psychological, paranormal and mystery fiction and non-fiction. My next book ‘Paranormal Warwickshire’ will be published by Amberley Publishing on 15h June 2020.

Book Review: ‘Less Than Ordinary’ by Nicki Copeland

Less than Ordinary‘, published by Instant Apostle, is a non-fiction inspirational self-help book, an account of one woman’s journey from low self-esteem and negative self-limiting beliefs to a place of wholeness where she is able to blossom, nurture her relationships, rejoice in her own inherent worth, and offer her gifts to the world.

A quote attributed to Nelson Mandela: As we let our own lights shine we unconsciously give others permission to do the same.

During the early part of the book, as I read Nicki’s story, I found myself wondering where all these ideas about herself had come from. What messages was she given when she was a young child? But later I thought that maybe the people who gave her those messages had no idea they were doing something so destructive; perhaps no such intention lay behind their words.

And then I realised I was identifying with some of her experiences, and I recognised the mindset. It may be that cultural presumptions about the role of women have something to do with it – even in our society, male/female equality still has a long way to go – but I also know there are men who feel as Nicki describes in these pages.

On a lighter note, I might mention that PG Wodehouse’s novels are full of young men browbeaten by domineering aunts and other authority figures, who are too shy and timid to express their true feelings, or be assertive. Light or not, the issues Nicki shares with us are not just a female thing.

What interested me in the book was Nicki’s description of how she came out of all this. She says that she ‘gradually began to consider…’ or ‘it occurred to’ her that… or she ‘slowly realised….’

For me the process was the same. Observation of people and experience of life eventually teaches you a stunning truth: that many of those who appear confident are not, underneath; that probably the majority of people shrink from meeting strangers; and that, in fact, when we humans seek to achieve our goals, we seem to be hard-wired to take what Robert McKee describes, in his book Story, ‘the most conservative action first.’

In Story, McKee points out that when constructing a plot, the author sets the main protagonist a challenge to overcome, a goal to achieve. Then the protagonist considers how to get what they want. And they always take the most conservative action first. In other words, they expend the least amount of energy to get what they want. This seems a rule of human nature and in the natural world too.

And if that works, good. But if it doesn’t – then you’ve got to spend a bit more energy, exercise more ingenuity, and do something a bit less conservative. And so on, until only the most extreme measures will do. It’s often only when people are pushed to the limit that they conquer great challenges.

So we can apply this rule of life to what Nicki says in her book Less Than Ordinary. All her early presumptions about herself were utterly false; and when the truth of human nature and behaviour finally broke in on her, she threw those false ideas away and she let her light shine.

I do believe there is great value for us when an author describes this process as well as Nicki does. If you feel this book sounds like one that would speak to you, I’d recommend reading it and pausing every once in a while to think about it, as you go through Nicki’s story.

Courage doesn’t consist of being naturally ‘confident’, and having high self-esteem written into your DNA and grasping challenges eagerly.

Courage is all about those who go on a long journey from out of a dark place, and discover the truth through life experience, then change in the light of it using the new knowledge to transform their lives.

SC Skillman

psychological, mystery, paranormal fiction & non-fiction

A Visit to Bletchley Park, Now Famous for the Codebreakers Whose Genius Saved Us During World War 2 – and Was Kept Secret for 30 Years

On a recent visit to Bletchley Park I learned many new things about exactly how an elite group of mathematicians, chess- playing and crossword puzzle solving experts, numbering ten thousand in all, came together here during the Second World War to break seemingly impenetrable codes and ciphers – all under the veil of great secrecy.

Bletchley Park Manor
Bletchley Park Manor – in several purpose-built huts in the grounds here, an elite community of codebreakers community broke the Nazi codes during World War 2

The Nazis didn’t even know of Bletchley Park’s existence – and never realised their ingenious codes were being broken.

On the surface, this is a lovely Victorian manor house in an idyllic park – but it became the centre of an extraordinary community, the site of several huts housing codebreakers and the amazing machines some of them invented. Throughout the war years, those who worked here – many recruited through the medium of a crossword puzzle, whose solution was a job advertisement – undertook painstaking, repetitive, patient work, revealing the messages being passed by Hitler to his commanders, and other messages which gave vital information about Nazi plans and intentions.

It has been estimated by several historians that the work of the codebreakers probably shortened the Second World War by two years.

As we went around the park using the audio tour, and visiting the exhibitions in the various huts and in the manor house itself, I felt humbled and awed by the work of the codebreakers – and in particular I was impressed to stand in the office Alan Turing himself used.

Bletchley Park - View of Block B from across the lake.
Block B, Bletchley Park, grew into a mechanised codebreaking factory. It was hardened in case of attack. Today it houses various exhibitions and galleries relating to wartime Bletchley Park.

For generations, the true achievement of all those people went unrecognised – because of the Official Secrets Act. But now we know, and since so much is known and understood now about the Second World War, and because there are so many films and books and first-person accounts available, we can comprehend the significance of what was achieved. And we also have the memories of those veterans who, during their twenties, worked at Bletchley Park, using their mathematical and deductive skills, their intuition and their mastery of logic.

It is sobering to reflect upon those who worked so long and hard and so patiently, to great ends. Each of them played a small but vital part in a massive undertaking. Many were modest and self-effacing in their later lives. Those who have seen the film The Imitation Game know of the great tragedy that befell Alan Turing later – a man to whom those who persecuted him, and millions of others, owed their lives. Because of the secrecy that shrouded his war work, the true nature of his achievement then was not widely known.

As I listened to the audio tour I heard accounts given by some of those who had, as young people, worked there in those huts. One of the ladies who spoke of that time said, “everybody here was a bit odd.” And I thought, yes: they would have been eccentrics, single-minded geniuses, those whom we might describe as idiots savant; those with autism and Asperger’s would have been numbered among them, capable of intense focus, of patient and tireless application to a long task with a greater objective in sight.

We owe them all an enormous debt, and their story is an inspiration of the highest order.

SC Skillman

psychological, paranormal, mystery fiction

author of Mystical Circles, a Passionate Spirit and A Perilous Path

Film Review: ‘Tolkien’ 2019 Film Starring Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins: A True Picture of Tolkien’s Inspirations?

Tolkien film 2019
Tolkien film 2019

I’ve recently been to see the film Tolkien about the early life of the great author who created The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. As one who has loved the creations of Tolkien, both his writings and his art, since I was at university, I looked forward greatly to seeing this film.

I was aware that Tolkien’s family have distanced themselves from the film so I was intrigued to find out for myself what could be the cause of their objections.

Nicholas Hoult’s performance as young Tolkien is admirable, and I often found the story very moving. The film sets out to show what might be considered Tolkien’s formative years – his childhood move to Birmingham, the loss of his parents, the transfer of his care to a priest, his lives at school and university, the relationships he formed, his early relationship with Edith who became his wife, his experience in the trenches in the First World War and his early married life, moving towards the time when he began writing The Hobbit.

Some of the criticisms levelled at the film have included the fact that no mention is made of his Catholic Christian worldview which played a vital part in his conception of Middle Earth and can even more clearly be seen in The Silmarillion. But this didn’t strike me as a major fault in the limited context of this film, since I had not expected it to cover more than a few elements which may have played their part in the creation of Middle Earth.

The film opens with a grim scene in the trenches and we return to this again and again in flashback. Then we move on to idyllic sunlit forest – woodland at Sarehole Mill, known to have inspired Tolkien. Throughout the film we are offered scenarios in which the film-makers speculate about the experiences from which may have sprung many elements in Tolkien’s fantasy world: the eye of Sauron, the two Towers, the Nazgul, the Dark Lord,  the Ents,  the Elvish princess Arwen, the close Fellowship of the Ring, the devotion and loyalty of Samwise Gangee to Frodo; and behind the action we often hear the voices of Lothlorien.

I enjoyed all this, accepting that the film-makers could not necessarily be expected to stick to known facts. From the point of view of a writer myself, I know that often when we write, ideas arise from the unconscious, and we cannot even say necessarily where any of them came from: unless it strike us unexpectedly. Thus it would surely have been for Tolkien as he created Middle Earth.

I was fascinated, though, to learn of Edith’s love for Wagner’s Ring Cycle – a love I share – and how this would have influenced Tolkien.  And also to learn of the influence of his professor in Philology, played by Derek Jacobi, who says: “There’s a comfort in distance, in ancient things.”  Tolkien’s passion for creating languages, complete with structure and vocabulary, comes over strongly.

And the film ends again back in the woodland at Sarehole Mill with Tolkien encouraging his children to speak to the trees, and speaking to them of their power:  “little people just like you… little in stature, not in spirit.”

Here are some other posts I’ve written about Tolkien.

SC Skillman

Psychological, paranormal, mystery fiction

Author of Mystical Circles, A Passionate Spirit, Perilous Path.

l

 

 

Film Reviews: ‘Tolkien’ 2019 Starring Nicholas Hoult

Tolkien film 2019
Tolkien film 2019

I’ve recently been to see the film Tolkien about the early life of the great author who created The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. As one who has loved the creations of Tolkien, both his writings and his art, since I was at university, I looked forward greatly to seeing this film.

I was aware that Tolkien’s family have distanced themselves from the film so I was intrigued to find out for myself what could be the cause of their objections.

Nicholas Hoult’s performance as young Tolkien is admirable, and I often found the story very moving. The film sets out to show what might be considered Tolkien’s formative years – his childhood move to Birmingham, the loss of his parents, the transfer of his care to a priest, his lives at school and university, the relationships he formed, his early relationship with Edith who became his wife, his experience in the trenches in the First World War and his early married life, moving towards the time when he began writing The Hobbit.

Some of the criticisms levelled at the film have included the fact that no mention is made of his Catholic Christian worldview which played a vital part in his conception of Middle Earth and can even more clearly be seen in The Silmarillion. But this didn’t strike me as a major fault in the limited context of this film, since I had not expected it to cover more than a few elements which may have played their part in the creation of Middle Earth.

The film opens with a grim scene in the trenches and we return to this again and again in flashback. Then we move on to idyllic sunlit forest – woodland at Sarehole Mill, known to have inspired Tolkien. Throughout the film we are offered scenarios in which the film-makers speculate about the experiences from which may have sprung many elements in Tolkien’s fantasy world: the eye of Sauron, the two Towers, the Nazgul, the Dark Lord,  the Ents,  the Elvish princess Arwen, the close Fellowship of the Ring, the devotion and loyalty of Samwise Gangee to Frodo; and behind the action we often hear the voices of Lothlorien.

I enjoyed all this, accepting that the film-makers could not necessarily be expected to stick to known facts. From the point of view of a writer myself, I know that often when we write, ideas arise from the unconscious, and we cannot even say necessarily where any of them came from: unless it strike us unexpectedly. Thus it would surely have been for Tolkien as he created Middle Earth.

I was fascinated, though, to learn of Edith’s love for Wagner’s Ring Cycle – a love I share – and how this would have influenced Tolkien.  And also to learn of the influence of his professor in Philology, played by Derek Jacobi, who says: “There’s a comfort in distance, in ancient things.”  Tolkien’s passion for creating languages, complete with structure and vocabulary, comes over strongly.

And the film ends again back in the woodland at Sarehole Mill with Tolkien encouraging his children to speak to the trees, and speaking to them of their power:  “little people just like you… little in stature, not in spirit.”

Here are some other posts I’ve written about Tolkien.

SC Skillman

Psychological, paranormal, mystery fiction

Author of Mystical Circles, A Passionate Spirit, Perilous Path.

l

 

 

Film and Book Review: ‘Silence’ by Shusaku Endo: and The Film Starring Andrew Garfield

Silence by Shusaku Endo is one of the most compelling and powerful books I’ve ever read.Silence - a novel by Shusaku Endo I wrote about it in this way on my website as part of a blog post about an exhibition at the British Museum, Living With the Gods.

When I first read the book, several years ago, I think one of the most remarkable things about it is that the reader can see both sides and even have some understanding both of the Japanese and the Jesuit priest, despite the extreme cruelty of the torture to which the Christian converts are subjected.

I personally thought the priest Roderigues should apostatise and that it wouldn’t detract from the integrity of his faith at all, because how can we ever eradicate what is in the heart of another, especially in the face of words and actions forced out of them under torture?

But I admired the priest’s determination to stay true to his faith, as he understood it. I also felt I could make sense of the position of the Japanese, utterly determined to stop a foreign religion from adultering and diluting their own culture, from stealing hearts and minds in their own country devoted to their own religions. I saw both sides.

And in the film directed by Martin Scorsese which was released in 2010, I felt the same. Basically the Jesuit priest played by Andrew Garfield would be wisest, I considered, to recognise that the Japanese culture and mindset was utterly alien from his own cultural formulations of religion and utterly set on protecting their own cultural and religious identity.

I feel the same when I read about the Jesuit priests who came to England clandestinely in the sixteenth century to try and turn England back to Catholicism again:  God’s Secret Agents, an excellent book by Alice Hogge.  And also when I visit historical properties which were once strong Catholic houses whose occupants practised their faith against the direct orders of their government, and where persecution of priests is part of the house’s history.

No matter the rightness or the wrongness of their position, when viewed in hindsight, I still admire the priests’ passionate conviction in the face of fierce persecution and the prospect of being hanged drawn and quartered.

England ultimately became Protestant, and I don’t myself believe that the spiritual stakes as they saw them ever existed; or that the fate of anyone’s eternal soul ever stood in jeopardy according to whether they were Catholic or Protestant.

But they believed it. And that’s all that matters.

Were they wrong? This is the big question that hangs over all these heartrending, dramatic stories. And the same question hangs over all our lives, as we struggle for whatever cause or goal or dream we passionately believe in. We’re probably wrong, too. Or at least there’s a high probability we are.

But does that invalidate our passion, conviction, courage and persistence and fierce unrelenting resilience?

No. Because if it does invalidate it, then shall we all just give up now?

I know as a writer I will never give up, whatever the outcome may be.

SC Skillman

Psychological, paranormal and mystery fiction

Author of Mystical Circles, A Passionate Spirit and Perilous Path

Coming soon: Spirit of Warwickshire

 

Book Review: “Paul: a Biography” by Tom Wright

This is a thorough, vivid and enlightening book about Paul the Apostle, otherwise known as St Paul.Paul a Biography by Tom Wright Tom Wright opens up for us the amazing personality of Paul: formidable, intellectual, resilient, passionate, determined, lyrical, energetic and utterly committed – a former Pharisee and a zealous Jew.

At the age of 23, Paul had his revelation on the road to Damascus. And what we often fail to realise is that after his period of blindness, he went off to Arabia for a couple of years to reflect. Then he spent about 2 weeks with Jesus’ disciple Peter. And after that he returned to his hometown Tarsus for ten years during which we know nothing of him.

It was only then that he began his extraordinary mission of travelling throughout the Mediterranean world, teaching and arguing and persuading first Jews, then Gentiles, that Israel’s God had fulfilled the Jews’ greatest hope, and come to the world as a crucified Messiah – a message many Jews found utterly abhorrent.

Reading this book made me reflect once again how much Christendom owes to Paul. I remember from my schooldays how my imagination was caught by the story of Paul and the riot of the silversmiths – when Paul showed up in town and started to draw people away from their belief in the cult of Diana, goddess of the Ephesians – thus causing uproar among the silversmiths whose livelihood depended on the cult.

As we read this biography we see before us a man powerful in intellect and vision, often vulnerable, who suffers from depression and comes very close to being broken in spirit, yet remains inspired in his actions and in his writing. In those letters, he encompasses his over-arching vision of Christ’s supremacy whilst fully acknowledging the reality of our individual lives and experience in this world.

Many of the passages Tom Wright quotes from Paul are his very greatest; and the strength and power of Paul’s words captivate you – words which have given comfort and strength and courage and renewal of faith to millions over the centuries since they were first dictated to the long-suffering scribe in that prison. The psychological astuteness of Paul’s great paradoxes shine out: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness and When I am weak, then I am strong. And Wright makes the point that throughout Paul’s journeys and his incredibly demanding series of lectures and talks, his imprisonments and his floggings, the one thing that cannot be eclipsed is his deep inner coherence.

Throughout his narrative, Tom Wright insists on the fact that the story of the Christian faith is not and never can be a story cut loose from the story of Israel. Towards the end of the book, when we reach Paul’s arrival in Rome, Wright refers to “the end of the world” which, to the Jews of the time, meant the destruction of the Temple (which was carried out by Rome in AD70).

Paul knew, better perhaps than any of his contemporaries, what reactions such a terrible event would produce. Gentile Jesus-followers would say that God had finally cut off those Jews, leaving ‘the church’ as a non-Jewish body. Christianity would become ‘a religion’ to be contrasted to something called ‘Judaism’. Jewish Jesus-followers would accuse their Gentile colleagues of having precipitated this disaster by imagining that one could worship the true God without getting circumcised and following the whole Torah. And Jews who had rejected the message of Jesus would be in no doubt at all. All this had happened because of the false prophet Jesus and his wicked followers, especially Paul who had led Israel astray.

I feel this is a very cogent summary of what, sadly, did indeed happen. But then Tom Wright goes on to examine the reasons for Paul’s ultimate success – firstly from a theological point of view, then humanly speaking, and then from the impact of his letters. Humanly speaking, Paul’s success may be partially accounted for by his phenomenal energy, his blunt, upfront way of telling it as he sees it, no matter who is confronting him. Also, there is his vulnerability: he loved people and they loved him.

Finally – there are his letters: small, bright, challenging documents. Within them, he draws upon all the philosophies and worldviews around him, sharply aware of and encompassing not simply religion or theology but also politics, ancient history, economics and/or philosophy. And his letters cover so many moods and situations. They take our arm and whisper a word of encouragement when we face a new task, they warn us of snakes in the grass, they unveil again and again the faithful, powerful love of the creator God. And all this with 70 or 80 pages of text to his name in the Bible. He succeeded, says Wright, far beyond the other great letter-writers of antiquity such as Cicero and Seneca.

Wright points out that many of the acknowledged great moments in church history – Augustine, Luther, Barth – have come about through fresh engagement with Paul’s work. His legacy has continually generated fresh dividends.

The Stoics, the Epicureans and the Middle Platonists had serious, articulate and in many ways attractive spokespeople… but Paul’s Jesus-focused vision of the one God, creator of all, was able to take on all these philosophies and beat them at their own game.

Finally, as we reach the end of this book, with Paul under house-arrest in Rome, ready to confront Caesar, knowing that he will before too long face death at the hands of the tyrant, Wright makes a chilling observation:

we have seen the electronic revolution produce a global situation just as dramatically new, in its way, as the one the first-century world had experienced with the rise of Rome.

I think we would do well to reflect upon this, and also consider how long the power and  might of the Roman Empire lasted – until it fell.

 

SC Skillman

psychological, paranormal, mystery fiction and inspirational non-fiction

Author of Mystical Circles, A Passionate Spirit and Perilous Path