Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Something More Positive

After my possibly over-long catalogue of quotes in which people give the church a caning, here's something more positive to warm your heart.  It comes from one of Australia's most celebrated alcoholics and writers, Henry Lawson.

Several of the stories in his collection Joe Wilson's Mates feature the outback parson and missionary Peter M'Laughlan.  This is how he is introduced in "Shall We Gather at the River".

I once heard a woman say that he had a beard like you see in some pictures of Christ. Peter M’Laughlan seldom smiled; there was something in his big dark brown eyes that was scarcely misery, not yet sadness – a sort of haunted sympathy….

Towards the end of his life if he went into a “rough” shed or shanty west of the Darling River- and some of them were rough – there would be a rest in the language and drinking, even a fight would be interrupted, and there would be more than one who would lift their hats to Peter M’Laughlan. A bushman very rarely lifts his hat to a man, yet the worst characters in the West have listened bareheaded to Peter when he preached.

In “His Brother’s Keeper” Peter rescues the alcoholic Jack from the clutches of an unscrupulous barman, and rides home with him and Joe.

Peter didn’t preach. He just jogged along and camped with us as if he were an ordinary, every-day mate. He yarned about all sorts of things….Peter never preached except when he was asked to hold a service…but in a case like ours he had a way of telling a little life story, with something in it that hit the young man he wanted to reform, and hit him hard.

Jack Mitchell’s verdict on Peter?

Now I know that Peter would do anything for a woman or a child, or an honest, straight, hard-up chap, but I can’t quite understand his being so partial to drunken scamps and vagabonds, black sheep and ne’er-do-wells. He’s got such a tremendous sympathy for drunks. He’ll do anything to help a drunken man.

Who does this remind you of?  Lawson wasn't a religious man himself and he was happy to lampoon religion in a relatively gentle way, with jokes played on the Salvation Army in particular.  Yet he didn't have the hatred or bitterness against the church that many of my earlier quotes reveal.  He imagines a Christ-like pastor who loves alcoholics, acts as their mate, doesn't preach to them but helps them to reform nonetheless.  He appears to hope, deeply and ferevently, that this is the way Christ himself will be.  I think he would have got a pleasant surprise.

Sunday, 26 September 2010


As a teenager I read and loved Lloyd Douglas's books about Jesus, The Robe and The Big Fisherman.  When I say these books are about Jesus I mean they were set in Jesus' day, and he appears in them.  The Robe centres on the commander of the soldiers who are on duty at his crucifixion, while The Big Fisherman takes its title from the apostle Peter who is its main character.  Douglas, a devout Christian, did not attempt to portray Jesus in much detail.  Even in the story of Peter he is a distant, mysterious figure, unimpressive at first sight but profoundly affecting on closer encounter.  What motivates Jesus, what his inner thoughts are, what struggles he undergoes, remain a mystery.  Jesus in these stories is not a person, he is a presence, known almost exclusively by his influence on others.

Jim Crace, whose other novels have been mentioned in this blog before, has no such reserve.  As far as I know he doesn't follow any Christian faith and if he does this novel doesn't show it.  As a result, he rushes in where Douglas fears to tread, attempting a journey inside Jesus' mind.

In this account, Jesus is one of five pilgrims who separately make their way to a spot in the wilderness near Jericho to hold a spring "quarantine" or forty day fast.  They come for various reasons - the old man Aphas to seek a cure for the cancer of which he is dying, the woman Marta seeking a cure for her infertility, the self-satisfied Greek Shim looking for enlightenment to further his carreer as a religious teacher, the deaf and dumb badu whose reasons remain a mystery.  Already camped near the caves in which they will spend their fast is Musa, abandoned by his merchant family because he is dying of fever, and his pregnant wife Miri.  Arriving and begging a little water from the inert, near dead Musa, Jesus appears to perform his first miracle, splashing water on Musa's face and greeting him with the customary words, "be well again". 

This healing, however, is deeply ambivalent.  Musa is a psychopath, abusing his wife and bullying the other four worshippers into paying him rent for the land they are on, which he says is his.  These four, nevous and confused, are keeping only a daylight fast in any case, breaking their fast each sundown and also nibbling and drinking a little before dawn to tide them through the day.  They fear the obese Musa, but also welcome his water and his dates, and listen fascinated at his mesmerising stories.

Only Jesus is impervious, keeping a complete fast in an all but inaccessible cave.  For him Musa becomes the devil, trying to tempt him to leave the cave and accept some food or water for some reason that even Musa himself does not fully understand, although Musa convinces himself he wants to profit from Jesus' healing powers.  The others also beg him to come out, because each sees in him the possibility of their own healing.

In the chapters which portray Jesus, Crace walks a fine line between piety and cynicism.  Jesus is clearly no God.  He is a naive, uneducated Galilean villager, derided as clumsy and foolish by his family.  Yes he is also deeply and genuinely touched by God, devoted to prayer, determined to live a life of service, vowing the strictest of possible fasts in the belief that God will come to him and inhabit him.  Although his thoughts are not completely holy - he imagines himself returning home and proving his family and neighbours wrong, healing the sick in God's name - nor are they sinful.  He doesn't wish anyone ill, even his tempters, and he does not fall for their temptation.  The pouch of food they lower to his cave mouth is thrown over the precipice untouched.

In what follows Crace manages to compress much of the gospel story into the less than forty days which the quarantine ends up taking.  On the windy night which follows day 30 of the fast Jesus finally dies of dehydration, while Musa is busy brutally solving Marta's infertility.  The next day Miri and Marta, by this time as close as sisters, dress his body and the men bury it in the grave Miri hopefully dug for Musa at the start of the story.  Yet Musa has already seen Jesus walking in the wilderness, and Marta has been visited by him and comforted.  By the end of the story all five - even Miri, with Marta's encouragement - have escaped Musa's clutches and left him to drag his fat body down the mountain alone and unaided.  Left with nothing to trade, we leave Musa planning his new career as a purveyor of stories of the healer Jesus, who he sees for a second time as he leaves the hills, picking his way down the slope with feet bleeding from the thorns.

In contrast to the views I've been discussing over the past couple of weeks, this is an oddly "in-between" picture of Christian belief.  The techniques of magical realism allow Crace to sit on the fence.  Miracles are certainly possible.  A sick man can be healed, an abused wife can be freed from her husband, a devout village misfit can experience God's presence and be caught up into heaven.  Yet these miracles will be ambivalent.  It may have been better for everyone, at least in the short term, if the sick man had been left to die.  And this healed psychopath becomes the apostle, embroidering endlessly on his brief encounter with Jesus in every marketplace until the story becomes the unrecognisable gospel we have today.

This is a Jesus you can feel sorry for, even admire in a distant kind of way, but it need not affect your life much.  Such is Crace's skill as a storyteller that you can easily slip into his point of view, in which his imagining is the truth and our gospels merely the creations of a pathological liar.  In this view you could believe in the possibility of healing, even of miracles, but you wouldn't want to devote your life to it.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Loving Jesus, Hating the Church

Following on from my little catalogue of reasons why people might hate Christians, here's an interesting thought from Jackson Browne.  "The Rebel Jesus" was recorded with The Chieftains for a Christmas album.  I don't know how much theology Browne knows, but he's managed, by accident or design, to write a fabulous liberation theology Christmas carol.  After describing a happy Northern Hemisphere Christmas, he moves on to the person it's all about.

Well they call him by 'the Prince of Peace'
And they call him by 'the Savior'
And they pray to him upon the seas
And in every bold endeavor
And they fill his churches with their pride and gold
While their faith in him increases
But they've turned the nature that I worship in
From a temple to a robber's den
In the words of the rebel Jesus

Well we guard our world with locks and guns
And we guard our fine possessions
And once a year when Christmas comes
We give to our relations
And perhaps we give a little to the poor
If the generosity should seize us
But if any one of us should interfere
In the business of why they are poor
They get the same as the rebel Jesus

Having pilloried the worshippers he signs off with this.

So I bid you pleasure
And I bid you cheer
From a heathen and a pagan
On the side of the rebel Jesus

His problem, you see, isn't with Jesus.  He loves Jesus and his message.  His problem is that those who should be following Jesus have betrayed him.  Christians are identified with his persecutors, not with him.  True worshippers will be outside the church, "heathens and pagans on the side of the rebel Jesus".

When I went looking for the lyrics to this song, it was interesting to find quite a few Christian bloggers using its title and even its words as background for their own meditations - like this one, or this.  There are plenty of Christians who, like me, think Browne has a point.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Nothing New on the Western Front

I've finally got around to reading Erich Maria Remarque's classic novel of World War 1, All Quiet on the Western Front.  Among other things, I learnt that its German title, Im Westen nichts Neues, properly translates as "Nothing New on the Western Front".  A piece of irony completely in tune with the book itself, and a direct quote from the final page of the book:

...a day so still and quiet along the entire front line that the army dispatches restricted themselves to the single sentence: that there was nothing new to report on the western front.

The English title, so thoroughly embedded in our vernacular that it would be impossible for any publisher to change, carries a different kind of irony.  The novel reverberates with the sound of artillery and gunfire. 

It has one of the best openings of any book I've read: a scene of satiety, the company recently relieved from the front line, their bellies full after a huge feast. 

And on top of it all we're not really entitled to this lot....We've only got it because of a mistake.  Fourteen days ago we were sent up the line as relief troops.  It was pretty quiet in our sector, and because of that the quartermaster drew the normal quantity of food for the day we were due back, and he catered for the full company of a hundred and fifty men.  But then, on the very last day, we were taken by surprise by long-range shelling from heavy artillery.  The English guns kept on pounding our position, so we lost a lot of men, and only eighty of us came back.

This "mistake" sets the tone for the jarring mix of carnage and humour that follows.  What's most impressive is what's not there.  There's no heroism, no grand ideals, no sense of strategy and purpose, no good guys or bad guys.  There's only a group of soldiers - some young boys just out of school, some older men, farmers signed up for the pay - who have no loyalty except to their mates and think no further than surviving another day.  There are moments of black comedy behind the lines when, to the distant boom of artillery, the soldiers live entirely for the moment, scrounging food where they can and stuffing themselves like there's no tomorrow.  Then there are moments on the line when you see why there may be no tomorrow as they kill or are killed with brutal impersonality.

The Nazis burnt copies of this book saying it betrayed the frontline soldiers but it doesn't do that.  They are brave, resourceful and they care for one another.  The people it betrays are the leaders and generals on both sides who signed up for the war, sending young men to their deaths without rhyme or reason.  In the process, so much of their humanity is stripped away.

We set out as soldiers, and we might be grumbling or we might be cheerful - we reach the zone where the front line begins, and we have turned into human animals.

Against this backdrop the characters, even the narrator, are not strong.  They are cardboard cutouts, archetypal soldiers going through their grim manouvres, without hopes or dreams, hanging on to life with stubborn despair.  Only the indefatigable Katczinsky stands out and this is mainly for his comic effect, his ability to find food anywhere, to make the best of the meagre life on offer.  The rest serve merely as cannon fodder.  It's just as well you don't get to like them too much because you know it can only end one way.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Reason 4 - Abuse of Power

This is the last of these reasons and perhaps you're sighing with relief that there's an end in sight for all this negativity.  The good news will follow!  In the meantime, I've saved the biggie for last - joylessness, hypocrisy and shallowness pale into insignificance.

I thought of this one (not for the first time by a long shot) while listening to The World Turned Upside Down, a much-covered song by Leon Rosselson made famous by Billy Bragg.  It celebrates a 17th century act of rebellion by a group called "the Diggers" who set up a commune on land owned by wealthy landowners (guilty of "the sin of property") with predictable results.  Their thoughts on the Church:

They make the laws
To chain us well
The clergy dazzle us with heaven
Or they damn us into hell
We will not worship
The God they serve
The God of greed who feeds the rich
While poor folk starve

There's more than a little of Mr Brocklehurst in this, but there's so much more.  The church in 17th century Britain was completely bound up in the structures of power.  Its bishops were appointed by the King and sat in the House of Lords, chosen for their political loyalty.  Local church livings were in the gift of the local landowners who endowed them and paid much of their expenses. 

This means that rebels like the Diggers saw the church not as their refuge and salvation, but as their oppressor, the agent and religious bulwark of the establishment.  Is it any wonder that they rejected the church?  Or that later the leaders of the French revolution and later still the Bolsheviks in Russia saw the suppression of religion as part of their revolutionary mandate?

Although the political power of the church has long since waned, many of our bad habits are still with us.  I've previously commented on the way the churches respond to allegations of sexual abuse.  It's tragic that such abuse takes place, but criminal when the church as an institution  hushes it up and protects the perpetrators.  Similarly, here in Australia the church's often well-intentioned but misguided involvement in Aboriginal Affairs has left a legacy of hurt and anger in the Aboriginal community.

When I think of things like this, I always think of Jesus' "triumphal entry" into Jerusalem.  This is one of his amazingly insightful pieces of public theatre, this time a parody of the Roman Triumph where the emperor or general rides fully armed in a chariot, surrounded by his victorious troops, accompanied by plunder and captives.  Jesus, by contrast, rides a donkey, accompanied by ordinary peasants and workers who lay palm leaves at his feet.  It's no armed revolution, but nor is he in the entourage of the rulers of the world.  His power can be snuffed out by the smallest show of force, as indeed it was, but in handling things this way he let loose a different kind of power which has not been suppressed to this day.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Reason 3 - Shallowness

After joylessness and hypocrisy this one is a little out of the box, and it's not really hate, more just contempt.  It comes from Tom Waits 1999 album Mule Variations and it's called "Chocolate Jesus".

Don't go to church on Sunday, don't get down on my knees and pray
Don't memorise the books of the bible, got my own special way
I know Jesus loves me, maybe just a little bit more
I get down on my knees every Sunday, at Zarelda Lee's candy store

Got to be a Chocolate Jesus, make me feel so good inside
Got to be a Chocolate Jesus, keep me satisfied

Don't want no Yabba Zabba, don't want no Almond Joy
There ain't nothin better suitable for this boy
Well its the only thing that can pick me up, better than a cup of gold
See only a Chocolate Jesus, can satisfy my soul

When the weather gets rough and its whisky in the shade
Best to wrap your saviour up in cellophane
He flows like The Big Muddy, but that's okay
Pour him over icecream for a nice parfait ....

Got to be a Chocolate Jesus, good enough for me
Got to be a Chocolate Jesus, good enough for me

Got to be a Chocolate Jesus, make me feel so good inside
Got to be a Chocolate Jesus, keep me satisfied

There's always a lot going on in Tom Waits' mind and it's usually strange, but here is a parody on shallow, self-centred religion.  So many of us, including myself, love Jesus in the way we would love a chocolate, because it "makes us feel good inside", because it's easy and undemanding.  If that Jesus starts to get a little out of control, though, and wants to take on some shape of its own, demand something of us and get us in a mess, we can quickly freeze it.

People like Tom are happy to laugh at us and indeed are free to do so, because we hardly take it that seriously ourselves.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Why do they hate us? Reason 2 - Hypocrites

To continue with the subject of why people might be hostile towards Christians....

A second reason is a strong feeling that the Christian church is riddled with hypocrisy.

My text for today is from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.  Early in the story Jane's aunt introduces her to the principal of the boarding school to which she is to be banished, Mr Brocklehurst.

…I looked up at – a black pillar! – such, at least, appeared to me, at first sight, the straight, narrow, sable-clad shape standing erect on the rug: the grim face at the top was like a carved mask…

There is no mistaking the fact that this man is a vicar, or that he is forbidding.  He then humiliates her with a series of questions about her religious practice, and explains to her aunt

Humility is a Christian grace, and one particularly appropriate to the pupils of Lowood; I therefore direct that especial care shall be bestowed on its cultivation among them. I have studied how best to mortify in them the worldly sentiment of pride; and only the other day, I had a pleasing proof of my success. My second daughter, Augusta, went with her mama to visit the school, and on her return she exclaimed: “Oh dear papa, how quiet and plain all the girls at Lowood look; with their hair combed behind their ears, and their long pinafores, and those little holland pockets outside their frocks – they look almost like poor people’s children! "And" said she, “they looked at my dress and mama’s, as if they had never seen a silk gown before.”

Later, on being questioned by Rochester about him, Jane says

I disliked Mr Brocklehurst: and I was not alone in the feeling. He is a harsh man; at once pompous and meddling: he cut off our hair; and for economy’s sake bought us bad needles and thread, with which we could hardly sew…. He starved us when he had sole superintendence of the provision department, before the committee was appointed; and he bored us with long lectures once a week, and with evening readings from books of his own inditing, about sudden deaths and judgements, which made us afraid to go to bed.

Characters like Mr Brocklehurst abound in 19th century fiction - unctuous, self-righteous religious men who preach piety and humility for others but practice cruelty and avarice for themselves, who dress their poor charges in cheap cloth while their own families wear silk gowns.

These days church ministers have fewer opportunities to patronise and humiliate the poor, since that is now the job of State officials.  However, the view of church leaders as hypocrites is fuelled by some of our highest profile Christians.  When televangelists preach conversion and then insist the first duty of the convert is to tithe, we are naturally suspicious.  Our suspicions are confirmed when one of them is literally caught with his pants down, or his fingers in the till, or both.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Blake Prize

Speaking of Richard Beck, he also posted recently on the art found in his local Christian bookshop.  Most of it looks something like this.

He comments on why Christians feel they need to put words (in particular, Bible verses) on their artwork.  Many of his commenters wonder why all the art is so kitchy.

I thought of this because the winners of the Australian Blake Prize for religious art have just been announced.  Lo and behold, the winner of the Prize for Human Justice, Age 36 by Fiona White, has its own accompanying text.

Not quite a bible verse, and unlike the horse poster it can be taken a number of ways.  On the surface, the man in the picture is the victim of a human rights abuse.  But is that a halo around him?  Or the fire of the Spirit?  Or is he just getting burnt?

Other entries somehow managed to be religious without an accompanying verse, Biblical or otherwise.  Like the winner of the overall award, If you put your ear close, you'll hear it breathing by Leonard Brown.

Or this highly commended piece, Indulgence (Partial) by Olga Sankey.

The low-res photos don't really do the works justice, particularly Brown's intricate brushwork pattern.  But these creations are not obviously religious.  Instead, like any good art, they make you look and wonder, and maybe (if you are open) to feel something.  They don't tell you what to feel or to wonder, they provide an opening for you to do so in whatever way you choose.  Perhaps you might respond with derision, or with bafflement.  Neither of these things is necessarily bad, although I would encourage you to put your derision to the test, and look again to make sure it's not just your cage being rattled.

The judges said of Brown's work,

In a world of sound bites, snappy one liners and attention grabbing images which hold our interest for a nanosecond, Leonard Brown's beautiful and deeply contemplative painting appears strangely out of place. An ordained priest and a deeply religious person, Leonard Brown has created a work with an enormous spiritual presence, a work of outstanding visual intelligence and one with a profound contemplative content....It is a deeply lyrical work full of subtle variations, like a metaphorical tear drop or the quiet weeping of the seraphims.

If I had been judging, though, I would have given the prize to Rodney Pople's Cardinal with Altar Boy, with its beautiful, rich colours and textures and its spooky, spine chilling evocation of the mystery of holiness, the innocence of childhood and the horror of abuse.  At least, that's what I see.

Friday, 3 September 2010

On Discernment

For those of you who haven't yet found Richard Beck's "Experimental Theology" blog, his latest post is a good place to get acquainted. 

He suggests that a hypothetical church, struggling with the issue of gay marriage, might commission those of its members who are passionate about the issue to found a daughter church in which gay unions are treated identically with heterosexual unions.  This would be taking a great risk and they could be making a mistake.  But they are acting out of love and out of a passionate belief that this is what God wants them to do. 

He then suggests what God might say to them about it when they finally face him and are called to account for what they did.  It's thoughtful and thought-provoking.  Check it out.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Why do they hate us? Reason 1 - Killjoys

Christians are often surprised to find that there are many people in the world with a passionate hatred of Christianity, and that these are often people who have a past connection with the church.  It surprises us because most of us spend a fair amount of time with other Christians and we know they are no better or worse than other people.  While this is disappointing - surely the followers of the God who is Love should be at least a little better than average - it hardly seems a reason for active animosity.

I've been noticing that in our culture there is a strong thread of critique of the church, and if we listen carefully we can understand the animosity a little better.  So I'm going to give you some examples.  They're not scientific or representative, but they illustrate what many people feel.

My first is one of my favourite poems of all time, William Blake’s “The Garden of Love” from Songs of Experience.

I went to the garden of love
And saw what I never had seen
A chapel was built in the midst
Where I used to play on the green

 And the gates of the chapel were shut
And “thou shalt not” writ over the door
So I turned to the garden of love
That so many sweet flowers bore

 And I saw it was filled with graves
And tombstones where flowers should be
And priests in black gowns were walking their rounds
Binding with briars my joys and desires

Blake was a deeply religious man, if a little strange.  He wrote intensely religious poems and painted vivid Biblical scenes.  His relationship with God was passionate and deeply personal.  Yet he saw the church not as a helper but an intruder on this relationship.  Instead of helping him to love, the church prevented him. 
Where he looked for a celebration of life, he saw a graveyard.  Where he looked for a way of love, he found a locked door and a heartless commmand.  Where he looked for joy and fulfillment, he found a prison of thorns.  The song is a lament for his lost innocence, driven from him by the very institution that should have nurtured and celebrated it.
Back in the 1950's and 60s, Australians used to use the word "wowser" to describe a morals campaigner.  Wowsers were looked at with derision in Australia.  They supported a kind of public morality which they claimed was Christian.  It included early closing for pubs, strict liquor licensing and gambling restrictions, tough censorship and indecency laws, bans on Sunday get the picture.  In the wider Australian culture they were seen as killjoys, the enemies of fun.  And they were the public face of the church. 
In Queensland our State Premier, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, was a famous wowser who took part in public bible readings, opposed condom vending machines, maintained tough censorship laws and took every opportunity to court the religious vote.  Yet his career ended in public shame as the corruption of his government was revealed and he himself escaped prison by the skin of his teeth.
Hypocrisy can keep for another day.  But this harsh joylessness, this focus on externals and on banning things, seems not so much Christian as Pharisaical. 
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!  You shut the kingdom of heaven in men's faces.  You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.  (Mt 23:13)
I'd much rather follow the man who made wine at a wedding, and who strolled with his disciples through the grain-field on the Sabbath, plucking and eating ears of grain in defiance of the Sabbath law because they were hungry.  Lets not let our own fear of chaos, our desire for control and safety, shut out those who long to enter the joy of the Kingdom.