Book Reviews: Dilettantes In Death, Or Post-Traumatic Conspiracies

May 8, 2021

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Warriors, Dilettantes and Businessmen by WRJ Dean

The Bible: New Testament published by Jonathan Ball and Media 24 Weeklies

Footprints In The African Sand by Michael Cassidy

The Kremlin Conspiracy by Joel C Rosenberg

Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome by Reba Riley

Golden In Death by JD Robb



Warriors, Dilettantes and Businessmen is a publication sponsored by the John Voelcker Bird Book Fund and written by someone who has spent his life as a biologist working in Angola, Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa. His specialist work has been in the field of plant-animal interactions and the biology of birds in arid and semi-arid ecosystems. This is, however, a study of the interactions between a particular subspecies of homo sapiens and birds. Dean has made a careful study of that particular environment, the museum, and discovered there the impact of bird collectors on our understanding of birdlife. Who were the great uncoverers, trackers, identifiers, cartographers? In visits to 45 different museums and research centres across the world, he gives us some of the answers. The first two chapters, “Buried treasure or why collections (and museums) matter” and “The bizarre, the beautiful and the useful”, are excellent commentaries on the history of collecting, the motivations for and the value of such collections. There  is also a good description of the several means of preserving bird specimens. In the next chapter we are introduced to the early pioneers of birding in Southern Africa, Peter Kolb(e), Robert Jacob, Anders Sparrman, the Forsters, Thunberg and Levaillant, Lichtenstein, Delalande, the Verreux brothers, several of them giving their names to now well-known species. Burchell, Andrew Smith and Wahlberg followed in the 19th Century and made indelible marks on our history of birding. When we compare today’s facilities, infrastructure, transport and communication systems we can but be amazed at the hardiness and perseverance of these men. Of course, trade became an important part of birding and we have the stories of entrepreneurs as collectors for the great museums and private collectors. Some of the great botanists and zoologists financed their expeditions through these sales. Trophy-hunting was a greater threat to wildlife. From about 1850 to 1950, the hunt was on for rare species as trophies and not for scientific study. At the same time, there were growing concerns for the preservation of species and the responsibility of government agencies, often through museums, to sponsor responsible collecting. A fascinating part of this history is that of the role played by soldiers in the British Army, who were deployed in various parts of Southern Africa. Here we have the accounts of some vivid personalities. Egg collecting was common, and often detrimental. Not only soldiers but wealthy dilettantes enter the field – “My collection is bigger than yours”. This is of course one of the reasons for the importance of the careful curatorship of museums and why highly specialised staff are essential. The chapter Brewers, brick-layers, carpenters and customs officials covers the new colonists, the people now established permanently in South Africa, who are often both amateur ornithologists and entrepreneurs. Mixed motives, such as providing specimens to order, sometimes damaged outcomes, but they did often add to the proper study of birds in this area. Because they were restricted in their movements by virtue of their occupations, they took the study to new levels. This is an interesting, highly informative and well-written book. To be recommended. – RH


With the debate ongoing about who reads what and in which format, this experiment – the New Testament published in large-format, perfect-bound magazine style – may produce some interesting results. The text follows the Holy Bible New International Reader’s Version translation which is one of the less formal interpretations, and which is very easy to read. Where the publication departs from the normal Bible publishing styles is in the layout, which features large pictures and pullquotes on glossy pages, making the book look – by design – a magazine. It’s not entirely certain whether this is a ploy by the product’s co-publishers, magazine house Media 24, to boost its magazine statistics using the proven and enduring popularity of the world’s best-selling book. But if that is the case, the happy by-product may be that a number of readers who don’t own a Bible might be willing to have a look at the text in this presentation. It may also be a more accessible layout for youngsters who see the density of the more conventional Bible page as a challenge they don’t want to take on. – BD


Michael Cassidy is well-known in Christian circles and beyond as a stirring preacher, a writer and chiefly as the founder of African Enterprise (AE), an organisation that has seen major evangelical work in cities throughout Africa. Now in his early eighties, Michael has written an autobiography of note. He has a store of family letters, dating back to his childhood, probably also journals and files, but above all a memory which has enabled him to put glorious life into what might otherwise have been a dull chronicle. Born in South Africa of British parents, his early years were in Lesotho, where he came to know some remarkable personalities, not least Patrick Duncan of Liberal Party fame. His family and friends were articulate, politically aware and devout. Schooled in Johannesburg and then Balgowan (Michaelhouse), he was deeply influenced by both the boarding school experience, which was extremely challenging, and by some of the staff, including Bill Burnett, later Archbishop of Cape Town. From Michaelhouse he gained entry to Cambridge, even though an unpromising student. His parents made a huge sacrifice to support him. It was at Cambridge that the devout practices of boyhood blossomed into a deep personal commitment. The “conversion” experience was seminal for his future life and thought. He became an active member of the evangelical Christian student organisation and deeply involved in furthering his understanding of the faith. Here it was too that he first came to believe in his special vocation to be an evangelist to Africa. And so from Cambridge, having achieved a degree by dint of dogged hard work, to Fuller Theological Seminary in the United States. Here Michael found his feet theologically and in terms of hands-on organisation, what makes mission happen and effective. From here he went out on missions within the States and from here he launched Africa Enterprise. Here follows the remarkable story of AE, the decisions regarding policy, the threats and restrictions imposed by the apartheid regime, over-coming almost insuperable difficulties, bringing into the picture great Christians such as Dr Calvin Cook, Edgar Brookes, Alphaeus Zulu; attempting to bring on board as many Christian bodies and denominations as possible. Michael was invited to speak in Berlin at the first World Congress on Evangelism, addressing “Political Nationalism as an Obstacle to Evangelism”, a direct challenge to the DRC. Some of the excerpts from that paper, quoted in this book, are as challenging today as they were then. Michael’s courtship of Carol, his future wife, is beautifully and humorously described. Carol has been all through his life an extraordinary partner, wife, home-maker and parent, now grandparent. Her story and that of their growing family is a strong theme running through the book. AE was establishing a footprint throughout Africa, even in the days when any person or organisation tainted by South Africa, was suspected, feared or rejected. Remarkable leaders came to the fore in one country after another, with brilliantly successful missions and follow-up work. Inevitably the leadership of AE, with its strong commitment to non-racialism, became involved in the political discourse in South Africa, making a major impact on national developments. Here is Michael’s own account of the mass meetings, the prayer ministry and the often unreported discussion which AE facilitated between players from all parties and groupings. The most powerful account is that of the bloody conflict between the IFP and the ANC, the appeals to Buthelezi, and then the miraculous last moment salvaging of the first democratic elections: astute politics, exhausting discussions and the outpouring of prayer made possible a peaceful transition. Footprints In The African Sand is a book worth reading, first of all because it is a humble account of a Christian leader’s life and work; second because it challenges us today to both believe and pray and do in the face of challenges which are different but no less demanding of prayerful and thoughtful action; thirdly because the evangelical thinking of our time is so often superficial and “other-worldly”. The Religious Right of the USA and the prosperity gospel need to be shown up for what they are. Michael, Carol and the AE team have done great things. Great things need to happen in the future. Here is the story of how. – RH


I am not an admirer of Rosenberg’s nonfiction, and am somewhat hesitant about his apocalyptic novels, often involving ‘End Times’ and theology that favours American nationalism rather than orthodox Christianity and Judaism. The Kremlin Conspiracy is a novel that can be read with a degree of enjoyment! The plot is simple: Russia in 1999 has a charismatic President who is both dictatorial and megalomaniac. He wants to establish the glory of Imperial Russia. And he is prepared to use any means to this end. He has a beautiful and intelligent daughter, who is being courted by a young lawyer named Oleg Kraskin, a diffident young man and solid lawyer. The President consents and the wedding takes on the proportions of the last of the royal weddings in the time of the Tsars. Oleg is drawn into the inner circles of the Kremlin, and becomes confidante to his father-in-law. On the other side of the world young Marcus Ryker, an undergraduate, is battling his automobile and his emotions as he races to his mother’s aid. She is trapped in an abusive relationship with an abusive stepfather, whom Marcus detests. Marcus’s life changes forever as a result of this encounter. The book tells the stories of the two men in parallel, Oleg becoming increasingly involved in international diplomacy, Kremlin intrigues and the sinister plans of his father-in-law. Marcus enlists in the Marines, sees action in Afghanistan, distinguishes himself in every sphere and becomes part of the Presidential Protection Detail. The two men meet briefly in the course of their careers, but ultimately Oleg seeks out Marcus. The two men between them are drawn together in a crisis of global proportions. This is typically a story in which American nationalism and interests are closely conflated with Rosenberg’s brand of Christian belief. However if one simply swallows hard, this is a good read. – RH


People being hurt by the Church is some way is a sadly widespread phenomenon. It may be that would-be believers do not feel loved; that they feel actively judged; or that the act of worship feels completely foreign in a certain context. And responses to being hurt can be just as damaging, with people not only turning their backs on first church and then God for good, but reacting negatively and often aggressively to believers who try to rebuild broken bridges, probably assuming that the same pain suffered initially will be an inevitable result of letting their guard down this time. Reba Riley took her search for answers to an extreme extent, setting herself a year-long journey to recover from the spiritual trauma of her youth by trying out as many churches and belief systems as possible. Intellectually, it’s a fascinating idea, and Reba learns and experiences much as she visits a great number of varied institutions, having her eyes opened to philosophies and practices she didn’t know about. She discovers gentleness and prejudice and weirdness and wholesomeness – and often not in the niches she might have expected those facets to fit. Due to a debilitating illness, Riley is in considerable physical discomfort for much of her quest, but she is a difficult person to subdue, balancing the serious work of rehabilitating her perspectives with often uproarious humour and sharp insights. Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome is not a theological treatise – don’t expect a profound understanding or analysis of dogma. It also, unexpectedly, not a book that particularly supports a humanist approach where all things are good for all people as long as nobody gets hurt. Answers – as so often in matters of faith – are fleeting or amorphous and values preached loudly by one religion are often evident in many others. It’s gently thought-provoking, encouraging the asking of questions but also the understanding that responses might be confusing or uncomfortable. You’ll find yourself caring for Riley – for all her admitted faults – and suspecting that she might care for you too, should you ever meet. And that’s a solid solid step in the right direction.


Lieutenant Eve Dallas is a tough detective cop with the NYPD. In Golden In Death, she is faced with the murder of a kindly, well-respected paediatrician, who lives quietly with his partner, an equally likable and good man, who is headmaster of an elite private school. There is no thinkable motive. The murder is elaborate, well-planned and bizarre: poison gas delivered in a golden egg. Eve Dallas is unable to find immediate clues and there are no suspects within the circle of family and friends. The net is thrown wider. Eve Dallas brings enormous energy and intelligence to bear, aided by her assistant, Detective Peabody, and the resources of the NYPD. In the background is Eve’s own special man, Roarke, well connected in business circles and with great acumen. The hard work of sifting through every possibility looking for clues, from the woman who delivered the package, neighbours, clinic staff, patients, school colleagues and past students yields some possibilities, but there is careful probing to be done, interviews which end sometimes in threats of legal action, and then the processing of an enormous amount of information, discarding, storing, highlighting, collating. Then comes a second murder, a duplicate of the first, and the victim is the wife of an academic. Now it is clear that there is a link with the field of education. Does it make the task easier? This is a gripping story, coherent and well-told. Eve Dallas fills the pages with her explosive personality, drawing together the tenuous threads which will ultimately lead her to the perpetrators. She cares neither for indignant self-righteousness nor for status and threats of reprisals. The supporting cast is fascinating and varied. The motives and personalities of the murderers are convincing. This is not a work of literature; it is great fiction and enthralling detective work. Go for the ride. – RH

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