Christianity

The papacy’s role in international affairs is often underestimated. A recent example is Pope Francis’s participation in the 2015 negotiations leading to a détente between Cuba and the United States. It helped, of course, that Barack Obama was president and that Raúl Castro had replaced his brother Fidel in Havana; but it was Francis, building on the work of his predecessors who had maintained continuous relations with the Castro regime, who brought the two sides together, and who persuaded the United States to drop its sanctions against Cuba.

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What a scandal! The Blessed Virgin sprawled on a bed in the half-dark, dead as a doornail, belly swollen, bare legs sticking out for all the world to see. What could Caravaggio have been thinking of?

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Any recent ‘big picture’ church history will suffer by comparison with Diarmaid MacCulloch’s A History of Christianity (2009). That book discovers all manner of new evidence about this protean religion and opens up questions about its life in every age and across every continent. Even its subtitle, The First Three Thousand Years, wants us to appreciate that Christianity has to be understood through its origins in the Hebrew and Greek cultures of the millennium before Bethlehem. Geoffrey Blainey’s history begins more conventionally with the birth of Jesus.

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Who says printed books are dead and that the e-book is the future? Ars Sacra, weighing in at eleven kilos, with eight hundred pages and two thousand colour images, sets a new standard for the coffee-table book. While an iPad version would be lighter and not require a reinforced table, justice can only be done to this large-format book in printed form. Spanning late antiquity to the present, Ars Sacra presents the Christian artistic tradition through its greatest monuments and works of art. While many of the illustrations are familiar – Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque are well covered – the photographs are superb. Some buildings have multiple images and those from Poland and Russia, for instance, show the important regional architectural styles that developed away from the sphere of Rome.

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It’s usually said that Australians are uninterested in the metaphysical. Where in America the lines between the secular and religious are notoriously blurred, not least in their politicians or sporting heroes invoking God on almost every conceivable occasion, Australians by contrast are held to be a godless lot, their mythologies entirely secular in form and meaning. God is rarely publicly invoked, except by ministers of religion whose particular business it is duly to do so.

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