Monday, 28 January 2013

Flooding Again

So after a weekend of wild weather across southern Queensland it seems that Brisbane is about to be flooded again.  Fortunately for us the event is being described as a "minor flood" with levels 2 metres below what they reached in 2011, so we should be high and dry, unless further rain intervenes.  Not so our friends in Maryborough and Bundaberg, a bit further up the coast, who are facing a lot more water than they did in 2011.  Thinking of you all up there.


Ironically, although so far we have suffered no damage worth talking about in the storms that arrived this week, we did suffer a number of technological failures including of all things a blocked water main which meant our running water was reduced to a trickle.  I didn't mention the irony to the poor Queensland Urban Utilities guy who had to come out and fix it in the pouring rain on Sunday afternoon.  That would just have been annoying.  I'm hoping he got double time plus an extra wet weather allowance.

Someone mentioned that they wouldn't cope if the water pressure was always that low.  That set my brain whirring. 

A few years ago, our church put a lot of effort into raising the money to install a well in a two-thirds world village.  We had a poster of a hand water pump someone had drawn, and as we got closer to our goal the water got closer to the top of the pump until it gushed out.  We felt good when we reached the goal and the people of the designated village got a shiny new pump where they could fill their water tins.

Access to safe water is one of the key aspects of health improvement.  Contaminated water leads to all sorts of diseases and 3.4 million people die each year from water-related illnesses.  About one in ten people in the world - almost 800 million people - don't have access to safe drinking water. 

We're not talking running water in their homes here, we're talking safe clean water in their community - a village well like our church paid for, reticulated water to some accessible location, a decent rainwater storage system.  The kind of access we have is a whole series of steps above that.  The fact that we take it for granted shows just how wealthy we are.

Nothing makes this gap between rich and poor clearer than a natural disaster.  When we had to evacuate our home in 2011 we were incredibly stressed.  Yet our living conditions - sharing with my sister in her safe, roomy house with lots of running water and electricity - were infinitely better than most people live their whole lives.  If our water had remained cut off this weekend the solution - to stroll over to our neighbours' house and fill our buckets from their tap - would be what billions of people do as a matter of course every day.  Hundreds of millions can't even do that.

When these things go wrong it feels like we can't cope, but our experience of natural disasters shows we can.  Although we have become dependent on our affluence and are not sure what to do without it, when the time comes we are more resilient than we think.  We learn how to improvise.  Others in our community help us out.  We live with less.  We share with each other. 

This is fortunate, because if we insist on continuing to ruin the planet we will have to do this a lot more.  It's heartening to be reminded that we are more adaptable than we think.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

The Egyptian Hallel

So, I get to preach again after a long break, and my subject this Sunday is Psalm 116.  Here's what I think I'm going to say, or something like it.

The Book of Psalms is a song book, an anthology of works by different authors written at different times in Israel's history.  It probably came together in its current form in the post-exilic period, but many of the songs it contains are pre-exilic, with a lot attributed to King David.  No musical notation has survived (it's possible that none ever existed) and we have no way of knowing how the songs were sung, but what appear to be musical instructions appear in some of the psalms and the title of the book itself comes from the Greek work for songs accompanied by stringed instruments.


In principle, this collection is similar to the collections we use today for church worship - The Australian Hymn Book, say, or the various collections of Scripture in Song or The Source.  Like these contemporary collections, it contains songs intended for public worship, in this case at the Second Temple in Jerusalem.  Some can be used any time, some are for special occasions - coronations or royal festivals, major religious feasts and commemorations, particular private services.  In practice, no doubt some were used regularly and became popular, while others were rarely sung.

Songs and poems are not treatises.  They are not intended to explain or define doctrine or ethical principles, or to impart facts.  They are intended to express and elicit emotion.  The psalm is an expression before God of how the singer feels about God, or about his or her own situation before God.  In this collection we see a wide range of emotional responses to God.  Some are very familiar to us, and very similar to the emotional tone of songs we use in our own worship - gratitude, amazement, exaltation, awe, longing, contrition..

We're pretty comfortable with expressing these emotions in public, although our longing and our contrition are often rather muted.  However, there are also some emotions in the Psalms that we would be very reluctant to express in public.  Psalm 137 is one such psalm.

By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.


On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’

How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?

If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.


Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
how they said, ‘Tear it down! Tear it down!
Down to its foundations!’
O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!

This is one of the best known psalms in the Bible - a couple of versions were popular in my youth including Boney M's ridiculously jaunty disco version.  Yet it would be shocking to sing such a song in church, especially if we sang it to the end.  It records a protest born out of grief and despair.  The Israelis, in their grief, refuse their captors request to sing for them.  "How can we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land".  They are no longer able to worship the Lord, all they are able to do is weep at the memory of the land they have lost.

Then their grief turns to anger and hatred against those who have caused it - the Babylonians and their allies, the Edomites.  This is not an ethical prescription, some kind of Biblical justification of infanticide.  It is a cry from the heart, an expression of how it feels to be forced into exile at the point of the sword, to have your home destroyed and be carried off as slaves.  It is the kind of anger we see so often in the war-torn parts of the world.  It is how we would feel if it happened to us.  The Israelis weren't shy of expressing this anger in the presence of God.

Yet their psalms also expressed the other side of this equation - their joy and gratitude at being brought back home.  This is expressed most clearly in what has come to be known as the "Egyptian Hallel", the set of psalms from numbers 113 to 118.  These psalms were sung together at the major Israeli celebrations - at least as early as Jesus' time and possibly earlier still.  During the Passover they were (and still are) sung in two installments - Psalms 113 and 114 before the meal, and Psalms 115-118 afterwards.  The are called the "Hallel" because the word "hallelu-yah" - Hebrew for "praise the Lord" - appears at either the beginning or end of each psalm except 118, where it is changed to "give thanks to the Lord".  Each of the psalms gives thanks for some aspect of God's care for his people.

Psalm 113 celebrates the Lord's majesty and rule of the nations, which he uses to lift up the powerless - that is, perhaps, the nation of Israel in their darkest hour. “The Lord is high above the nations…he raises the poor from the dust”

Psalm 114 rejoices in hyperbolic terms over Israel's escape from Egypt -  “When Israel went out from Egypt…”

Psalm 115 celebrates the superiority of the Lord over the gods of other nations, who are merely creations of wood or precious metal.  “Why should the nations say ‘Where is their God?’”

Psalm 117 is a short song of praise beginning, “Praise the Lord, all you nations”

Psalm 118 is a song of victory in war.   “There are glad songs of victory in the tents of the righteous"

In the midst of this collective celebration of national victory, liberation and identity, Psalm 116 stands out as a very personal song.  "We" and "us" is replaced by "I" and "me".

I love the Lord, because he has heard
my voice and my supplications.
Because he inclined his ear to me,
therefore I will call on him as long as I live.


The snares of death encompassed me;
the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me;
I suffered distress and anguish.
Then I called on the name of the Lord:
‘O Lord, I pray, save my life!’ 

Gracious is the Lord, and righteous;
our God is merciful.
The Lord protects the simple;
when I was brought low, he saved me.


Return, O my soul, to your rest,
for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you.
For you have delivered my soul from death,
my eyes from tears,
my feet from stumbling.
I walk before the Lord
in the land of the living.


I kept my faith, even when I said,
‘I am greatly afflicted’;
I said in my consternation,
‘Everyone is a liar.’

This psalm reminds us that all these great national conflicts and triumphs are personal. They affect real people, with real hopes and dreams, real emotions. When they go wrong, we experience fear, when they go right, we experience joy and relief. It is, in many ways, the reverse of Psalm 137.  Their release from Babylonian exile would have been in their minds at Passover just as much as their distant ancestors' escape from Egypt.   

Just as grief morphed into anger and a desire to do harm, now relief and gratitude morph into a desire to serve.

What shall I return to the Lord
for all his bounty to me?
I will lift up the cup of salvation
and call on the name of the Lord,
I will pay my vows to the Lord
in the presence of all his people.


Precious in the sight of the Lord
is the death of his faithful ones.
O Lord, I am your servant;
I am your servant, the child of your serving-maid.
You have loosed my bonds.


I will offer to you a thanksgiving sacrifice
and call on the name of the Lord.
I will pay my vows to the Lord
in the presence of all his people,
in the courts of the house of the Lord,
in your midst, O Jerusalem.
Praise the Lord!

A final thought.  After the Last Supper in Mark 14:26 and its equivalents, it says "When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives".  This hymn was probably the second part of the "Egyptian Hallel".  If, as John Shelby Spong suggests, the gospels are deliberately structured around the great Jewish feasts, then these are appropriate Easter hymns.  Psalm 137 would do for Good Friday, as the writers of Godspell realised.  All the oppression of a powerful empire was brought to bear on Jesus and he appeared defeated, so that all his followers could do was despair. 

Yet Easter Sunday came and ultimately we can celebrate the God who heard, and still hears our cries for help and rescues us from death.  Then it would be appropriate to sing Psalm 116 and celebrate our release from our own death and suffering.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Playing 'Helen Demidenko'

Reading and thinking about Tom Waits and the art of being someone else made me think of Helen Demidenko.
Demidenko burst onto the Australian literary scene at the age of 22 in 1994 with her novel The Hand That Signed The Paper.  Prior to its publication the novel won the Australian/Vogel award for a manuscript by a young author.  After publication in 1995 it won the Miles Franklin, Australia's most prestigious literary gong.
The novel, purporting to be drawn from stories told to the author by her Ukrainian refugee family, dealt with the cycle of violence between Ukrainians and Jews  It blamed Jews for the Ukrainian famine of the late 1930s (for which, incidentally, the Russian Communist Party was actually responsible) and subsequent Ukrainian involvement in the holocaust was portrayed as a consequence of this prior crime.
The book's reception at the hands of Australia's literary establishment can't have been hindered by its charismatic author.  A tall, striking young woman with bleached hair, she appeared at literary events in Ukrainian peasant costume and told stories about her Ukrainian family, heavy vodka drinking and growing up in the outer Brisbane public housing estate of Woodridge with its teenage single mothers, rampant drug addiction and burnt out cars littering the footpaths.  Her success was seen as a sign that "ethnic" literature was coming of age in Australia.
Controversy swirled around the book from the first.  Was it anti-semitic, or simply presenting a literary point of view?  Was it a brilliant work of literature or a turgid, plotless excuse for gratuitous sex and violence?  Were parts of it plagiarised, or is it legitimate post-modern practice to appropriate phrases and sentences from other writers without attribution?
All this was swept aside when Brisbane's Courier-Mail dropped the big bombshell.  'Helen Demidenko' was in fact an Anglo-Australian woman called Helen Darville, with no Ukrainian forebears.  Furthermore, she grew up not in Woodridge but in a nearby middle-class suburb, where no doubt she learned how to stereotype her poorer neighbours for literary consumption. 
The vultures swooped.  Darville went into hiding before emerging to justify her actions with a dubious alternative story involving a Ukrainian former Waffen-SS officer living in her neighbourhood.  She was contrite in a limited kind of way and attempted to relaunch her literary career via a column in the Courier Mail, only to be cut short by another plagiarism controversy.  The column was axed and she disappeared off the radar.
Of course, once her cover was blown it was all over.  Darville/Demidenko's art was not really in her rather mediocre book.  It was in the whole package, the idea and personality of 'Helen Demidenko', this faux-Ukrainian young woman of immense talent and somewhat disturbing political views.  She provided us, for that 18 months, with a fascinating multi-media performance that outshone all the more talented wordsmiths who claimed the Miles Franklin before and after her.  As Helen Darville she was a lot more real, but a lot less interesting.  Without the mesmerising public performances and imaginary illiterate baba attending her festival lectures, there was not a great deal left.
Tom Waits could have told her a thing or two about how to sustain a misleading identity for an extended period.  For a start, Waits has taken care to mix fact with fiction.  His character shares not only a name but a number of biographical details with himself.  At the same time he often lies extravagantly, so you know not to trust him.  This has allowed him to sustain the ambiguity for 40 years.  It gives us permission to enjoy the illusion, to fall in love with the character and let go of the comparatively boring question of  factuality.
Another author who could have taught Darville a thing or two about the imposture game, had he still been alive, was John O'Grady.  O'Grady's first book, the light-hearted They're a Weird Mob, was published in 1957 under the name Nino Culotta.  It purported to be an Italian immigrant's account of his arrival and settlement in Australia.  Unlike Darville he made no attempt to appear in public, and when he was exposed he played the whole thing for laughs.  He even published further books as Culotta, making his alter-ego protest that he could not possibly be his good friend John O'Grady because O'Grady was not Italian. 
Darville's main mistake was not to have a Plan B.  If Waits is caught in a lie he can tell either the truth or an even bigger lie.  His audience will happily accept either.  If all else fails he can always sing them a song.  O'Grady was willing to have a laugh at his own expense and then carry on the joke - as well as following up with other jokes in his successful subsequent career as a humourist. 
Darville, by contrast, had no gift for either self-deprecation or candour.  Nor was she able to modulate her performance once its initial season had run its course.  If you are a one-trick pony, once that trick no longer amuses it's the knackery for you.  Or a career in the law.
Of course she is still alive and now 40 years old.  She has changed her name again and practices law as Helen Dale.  Despite claiming to have given up writing she blogs as SkepticLawyerIn a 2005 interview with the ABC she was strangely ambivalent and largely unrepentant about her time as 'Helen Demidenko' and the main thing she seems to have learned from the experience is a scorn for the literary establishment. 

It is always wise, from a psychological viewpoint, to reject that which has rejected you.  But in the light of history what are we to make of her tale of her father dying while 'on the job' with a prostitute?  Perhaps there is a further performance still to come.

Monday, 7 January 2013

Playing 'Tom Waits'

I've been a fan of Tom Waits for a long time.  His music is so distinctive, his clever jazz-influenced sound cutting across the blues and folk of his contemporaries, his worn voice telling stories of bad luck, bad whisky and life on the edge of society.  The apparent shambles of his music and his person hides a rare sophistication and attention to detail which has produced a unique body of work over almost 40 creative years.

So one of my holiday reads this year was Barney Hoskyns' Low Side of the Road: A Life of Tom Waits.  I wanted to know, what makes Waits tick?  How does he come by the slanted, left-field view of the world which makes his songs so distinctive?

Unfortunately - or perhaps fortunately, as we will see -  this is just what Waits himself does not want me or anyone else, especially a journalist like Barney Hoskyns, to know.    Waits not only refused to speak to Hoskyns, he also discouraged his friends from doing so.  This left the author relying on ex-friends and the public record for his story. 

While clearly frustrated and a little resentful, Hoskyns has resisted the temptation to take revenge by writing a hostile biography.  If anything, he is a fan.  It also seems there is not too much dirt to dish.  Even the ex-friends who were willing to talk had little bad to say beyond some resentment at his capacity to drop people he no longer finds useful.  Waits appears as an amusing, clever performer, a charming friend and companion, a hard-working and slightly introverted artist, a respectful collaborator. 

Yet as the book progresses, Waits disappears into the haze of his own smokescreen.  Once there is no-one from inside the camp to spill the beans, Hoskyns has to rely exclusively on the hints that Waits provides in his interviews and publicity.  This, it seems, is something no sensible biographer would ever do.

This is because alongside his day-job as a musician, Tom Waits moonlights as an actor and story-teller.  Before he ever performed on stage, he worked as a doorman at a San Diego nightclub.  His jokes and fanciful, meandering tales gathered an audience who often found them more entertaining than the earnest folk musicians within.  Over the years he has refined this talent, appearing in everything from mainstream Hollywood films to avant garde theatre. 

His greatest role, one to which he constantly returns, is as a character called 'Tom Waits'.  This character bears a more than coincidental resemblance to a real person of the same name, a famous musician who lives at an undisclosed rural location in California with his wife and children.  However, it is not always clear where the real person and the fictional character diverge, because 'Waits' (and perhaps also Waits) is an accomplished bullshit artist.

Sometimes it is clear that he is pulling your leg, such as when he tells the story of the woman in the supermarket who asks him to pretend to be her son.  He is also clearly having us on when he tells us his wife and collaborator Kathleen Brennan was a nun when he met her.  Independent witnesses confirm she was a script editor working on a movie for which Waits composed the score.  I also suspect that the story about dog snacks made from bulls' penis is...well...bull, but then you never know.

On the other hand, we know Waits is in dead earnest when he expresses his views on the use of classic songs in advertising. He has the lawsuits to prove it.  We also know for a fact that he is married and has three children (now grown up) since they have all provided physical evidence of their existence.

Most of the time, though, the lines are more blurred.  For instance, it is a matter of fact that Waits is an alcoholic.  Yet when he shambled around the set of the Don Lane Show in 1979 how drunk was he, really?  The stories he slurs out may appear spontaneous, but they recur time and again in his perfomances and even in his songs.  This is the character he plays in interviews (both televised and in print), who comes on stage when he performs, who appears as the baffled and unreliable narrator of his songs and stories. 

It seems, perhaps, that Tom Waits was once a lot more like 'Tom Waits' than he is now.  Waits did, apparently, really live at the Tropicana Motor Inn, eat at cheap diners and stay out all night getting drunk in seedy bars with Chuck E Weiss.  You can only do this for so long before you either change your life or die.  We should not begrudge Waits his desire to go on living.  Yet how interesting is a sober, artsy middle aged musician?  Of some academic interest maybe, but 'Tom Waits' is a lot more fun, and a lot more able to poke anarchic fun at his society, at the conventions of religion, music and family life, and at himself. 

A hallmark of great acting, and of great storytelling, is to make the viewer or listener suspend their disbelief, to buy into the illusion for long enough to be entertained and moved, whether to laughter, tears or pity. Waits has been able to make us do this for almost 40 years.  A big part of his success is his ability to keep us off balance, always wondering "is this real?".

Why, then, would he submit himself to the unmasking that is biography?  Nothing would kill the show more certainly than a carefully researched, fully documented and scrupulously accurate account of his life.  Hoskyns, admirer of Waits though he is, does not seem to have fully grasped this fact.  Perhaps one day Waits will write his own life story, or perhaps collaborate on it with a writer he trusts.  It would be brilliant, amusing, insightful and elliptical, and quite probably untrue.