Some­times love’s not good enough

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Peter By­croft

OF to­day’s Chris­tian churches, prob­a­bly the one sec­u­lar hu­man­ists like the most is the Angli­can. The Angli­cans seem much more down to earth, sup­port­ive of those less well off, will­ing to take up the fight for women’s rights, same­sex cou­ples and the gay, les­bian and trans­gen­der com­mu­ni­ties.

Sure, the Angli­cans have de­bates about these is­sues, but at least they make them pub­lic. They seem to be the most con­tem­po­rary and prag­matic group to emerge in the 1700 years or so of the West’s dom­i­na­tion by the Chris­tian mythol­ogy.

How­ever, the per­cent­age of Aus­tralians who be­lieve the Chris­tian story con­tin­ues to de­cline with each cen­sus. Even those who claim a Chris­tian al­le­giance are in­creas­ingly less likely to at­tend church ser­vices.

For some, this ‘‘ awak­en­ing’’ of Aus­tralians re­flects, in part, the progress of arche­o­log­i­cal, cul­tural and his­tor­i­cal re­search that is defin­ing the Bible as es­sen­tially a book hy­bridised by well-mean­ing au­thors from pre­vi­ous mytholo­gies, built on half-truths, Bronze Age fables and in­ac­cu­rately ref­er­enced his­tor­i­cal events.

The au­thor of Love Up­side Down, Steven Og­den, is a born-again Angli­can, for­mer dean of St Peter’s Cathe­dral in Ade­laide. He seems like a nice chap and is clearly on a mis­sion from his cho­sen god. This book is the sec­ond of a planned tril­ogy: the first was I Met God in Ber­muda: Faith in the 21st Cen­tury (2009) and the third, he says, will cover ‘‘ ug­li­ness, beauty and the Spirit’’. All are pub­lished by quirky Amer­i­can in­de­pen­dent Zero Books, which boasts it is ‘‘ not afraid to pub­lish books . . . that aren’t go­ing to sell in large quan­ti­ties’’.

Well, Zero is cer­tainly right with Love Up­side Down, which reads like one long, con­tem­po­rary Angli­can min­is­ter’s ser­mon: con­ver­sa­tional, folksy, ro­man­tic, full of per­sonal anec­dotes and asides and am­a­teur­ish pop psychology. It me­an­ders all over the place (per­haps it was dic­tated?), is oc­ca­sion­ally self-dep­re­cat­ing, of­ten self­ind­ul­gent, a lit­tle old-fash­ioned and can­vasses widely (too of­ten pa­tro­n­is­ingly) many crit­i­cal so­cial is­sues.

The struc­ture, the ar­gu­ment and writ­ing style are un­re­solved. Og­den of­ten strays into a con­ver­sa­tional cul-de-sac of his own mak­ing, then waf­fles around in there try­ing to de­fine the real mean­ing of words such as love, spir­i­tu­al­ity, or­tho­doxy, com­mu­nion, vul­ner­a­bil­ity, be­long­ing, then has to re­trace his steps to the orig­i­nal topic. This usu­ally oc­curs at about the time the reader has con­cluded that this au­thor is hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion with him­self.

About one-third of the way through the book comes the crit­i­cal de­noue­ment: all types of love are sa­cred, spir­i­tual, in­dis­sol­u­ble and, you guessed it, a gift from Je­sus. And the book’s ti­tle? Well, Je­sus has con­trib­uted to the no­tion of ‘‘ up­side down love’’ by lov­ing and cham­pi­oning those less for­tu­nate. Sur­pris­ingly, there’s no men­tion of Deepak Cho­pra’s The Path to Love or of the amaz­ing back cat­a­logues of won­der­ful love songs, chants and cliches from com­posers such as Burt Bacharach, the Bea­tles or Ge­orge Young and Harry Vanda. Sure, what the world needs now is love, you can’t buy it and it is cer­tainly in the air. I’m just not sure that this work con­trib­utes much to our un­der­stand­ing of this most elu­sive and won­der­ful emo­tion. Peter By­croft is a re­li­gious his­to­rian and ad­junct pro­fes­sor in the fac­ulty of arts and so­cial sciences at Queens­land’s Univer­sity of the Sun­shine Coast.

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