Book review: The Zoo in You


This week, Eternity reviews some of the books shortlisted for Australian Christian Book of the Year 2012. Today, Joshua Maule reviews  the book ‘The Zoo in You’, meditations from Australian Christians, edited by Cameron Semmens.

Collaborative writing projects do not seem easy. There is an expectation that books maintain an internal consistency in a way newspapers and blogs do not need to. For a collaborative book to work, writers need a point of unity to rally around lest they each fire off in their own direction.

As its title suggests, The Zoo in You – a compilation of meditations from Australian Christians – is unified by the theme of animals. From invertebrates to mammals, natives to foreign species, each chapter begins with a poem about an animal by the book’s editor Cameron Semmens and concludes with a short musing from one of its more than 20 contributors. The notable thing about the animals is that they reside inside the author, hence the zoo is “in you”.

Visually the book outshines most in the Australian Christian market. Beautiful illustrations by Hamish McWilliam pepper multi-toned pages, giving the book an affective quiet. At times they compliment the writing superbly as in the case of his drawing of a lone owl perched on a white gum with a starry array behind it. Next to Harry Burggraaf’s meditation on Christian identity, it is a powerful image of individual contemplation and the confidence that comes from knowing we belong to God as saints.

Perhaps the book’s stand out contribution comes from Geoff Bullock, founder of Hillsong Music Australia. Titled ‘Remaking a Heart, Re-writing a Song’, it is an honest confession about Bullock’s personal realisation that during his Christian life he had slipped from under God’s grace into a mindset that left him “stricken with a fear that he [God] would pass me by”. Bullock tells of how he had to rewrite one of his most popular songs ‘The Power of Your Love’ so that it told of God’s coming to humanity, not humanity’s ability to reach God. Bullock shares the revised lyrics to his song, which when compared to his old version display an assurance that God has and does bring his people near by Jesus Christ, rather than by our incessant begging for him to do so.

Yet interestingly, traces of Bullock’s old version of the ‘Power of Your Love’ can be found in a prayer (I don’t know who wrote it) which follows. Carrying the line, “Love us into the music of heaven” the prayer seems to ask God for something he has already given in the gospel namely, his love.

A related contradiction crops up where introspection dominates portions of the prose and poetry. Alison Sampson writes: “We are frail creates. Most of us need constant reassurance to nurture our shreds of faith”; while Semmens writes in a poem:

“I am swept away-

a teeny tadpole in a raging current,

tumbling, blubbering,

at the mercy of my emotions.”

Christians, like all people, battle inner turmoil. At times we fail to grasp hold of – and feel – the promises that God has made known in the historical moment of Jesus’ resurrection. Yet at the end of reading The Zoo in You I am unconvinced that what we need is further introspection. Repetitive analysis of our emotional insecurities can attack our faith rather than promote it. Don’t we need to remember that our God exists apart from us and our battles? Shouldn’t we recall that he declared his love once and for all at Golgotha? Isn’t that where we need to look?

Linda Harding’s chapter about the grief she experienced in the loss of her son rewards a close reading and re-reading. Beginning her chapter with the words of Psalm 34:18, “The Lord is close to broken hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” her reflection comes from deep within grief’s echo chamber. In such a zone of hopelessness, Harding shares of how she latched onto Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians for its permission to concede personal weakness and yet hold onto Christ’s love. This ultimately is what helped her to continue on in faith.