Thursday, 30 May 2013

Eddie McGuire's "Slip of the Tongue"

On the weekend, prominent Aboriginal AFL player Adam Goodes was racially vilified by a 13 year old Collingwood supporter who referred to him as an "ape".  He took immediate action, asking security to remove her from the ground, which they did.  Collingwood president Eddie McGuire, one of Australia's most prominent media figures, was quick to visit Goodes in the dressing room and apologise on behalf of the club.

Later on the young girl was very contrite, ringing Goodes to aplogise.  He was forgiving.  Thirteen-year-olds do stupid things.  She needed to be told firmly, then left alone to do better next time.  Hopefully she will.

Forty-eight-year-olds do stupid things too, but they are entitled to be cut a lot less slack, especially when they are as prominent and media-savvy as Eddie McGuire.  Because only a few days later, with the vilification incident still echoing around the media, McGuire suggested on morning radio that Goodes could be used in a promotional role for "King Kong - The Musical".  Goodes and his club officials were flabbergasted. 

Unlike the young girl, Eddie did not so much apologise as make excuses. 

''I am not a racist because I have done a lot of things in the past and I will continue to fight for the cause of equality in Australia,'' he said. ''People don't resign because they make a slip of the tongue. It's as simple as that. If I stood up because I was racially vilifying somebody, not only should I be resigning, I should be sacked.

''I let myself down because I had a slip of the tongue. It was as simple as that but the ramifications are greater than that.''

Of course we know Eddie has form, and it's somewhat surprising that he hasn't learned from past mistakes.  In 2010, he made blatantly homophobic remarks about male figure skaters during commentary on the Vancouver Winter Olympics.  Just as in the Goodes incident, public outrage was swift and Eddie had to move quickly to make amends and save his job.

That time, though, he more than met his match, so to speak.  The main target of his remarks was English figure skater Johnny Weir, who is not only openly gay but flamboyantly so.  Weir is also just as media savvy as McGuire, if not more so.  Weir spent the rest of the games making McGuire squirm.  Poor blokey homophobic Eddie was forced to interview Johnny almost nightly, promote his lifestyle show, go along with his flirtatious remarks and even flirt clumsily in return.  He ate so much humble pie that he came home several kilograms heavier.  I was almost glad he made the remarks just so we could watch him swallow a fresh helping of it each day.

Sadly all this humble pie doesn't seem to have taught him anything.  Eddie is well schooled, he's been to cultural awareness courses, he knows Aboriginal history, he gives time to Aboriginal organisations.  All this makes him think that he's not racist.  But there he is on morning radio, a little tired and bleary, and suddenly he's drawing the comparison between Goodes and King Kong.

Asked why he had used Goodes' name, McGuire replied: ''We were talking about how the arm of King Kong was on the building. To be honest I was drifting off, thinking about how [promotional] things used to be done in the old days … it just slipped out.''

That, Eddie, is what racism is. 

Eddie knows better in his brain, but in his heart he is still back in the old days, when it was fine to treat people as racial stereotypes.  When he is alert and thinking straight, he is able to avoid offensive
remarks, but when he is tired and off guard they slip out.  No amount of education and humble pie seems able to change that, because ultimately he doesn't think it's wrong.  He just thinks it's impolitic. 

Eddie is probably too powerful to be got rid of.  Still, I hope Adam Goodes takes a leaf out of Johnny Weir's book and makes him squirm publicly for a while.  At least that way we will all get some enjoyment out of the affair.

*Quotes from the Brisbane Times.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013


After finally catching up with Twilight, I thought I'd go the whole hog and read Bram Stoker's Dracula

Stoker didn't exactly invent the vampire genre.  Vampires are figures of folklore and mythology, and other vampire novels preceded his, but he set the template for what was to follow. 

Abraham Stoker was an Irish protestant, a member of Dublin's governing class with a promising career in in the Irish public service.  His first book sounds particularly exciting - The Duties of Clerks of Petty Sessions in Ireland, published in 1879. 

However, by the time it was published he had already run away to join the theatre.  To be precise, he accepted the role of business manager at actor Henry Irving's Lyceum Theatre in London, where for the next thirty years he acted as the calm, organised foil to Irving's charisma and persuasive powers.  His own creativity also blossomed and when he was not pandering to Irving's ego he wrote and published a number of novels and stories and engaged in public controversies over subjects such as censorship (he was firmly in favour) and the poetry of Walt Whitman (likewise).

Virtually none of this output is read now - only Dracula has survived.  Published in 1897, it was an instant hit and has remained in print ever since.  Its story has become embedded in our culture and has, like the Count himself, spawned many retellings and reworkings of the theme of which Twilight is merely the most recent.  Even Sesame Street has a character based on Count Dracula.

The story, told through the diaries of its various protagonists, begins with the young English lawyer Jonathan Harker (perhaps an avatar of Stoker himself) travelling to Transylvania to assist the mysterious Count Dracula to finalise the purchase of property in England.  Why does he go in person, rather than simply mailing the documents?  Harker never voices this thought in his diary, but I bet he is thinking it as he is subjected to imprisonment, terrorisation by wolves, attack by mysterious bloodthirsty women, the discovery that his host sleeps in a coffin and the certainty that he is marked for death.

He survives and eventually makes his way back to England and a respectable marriage to his darling Mina.  However, Dracula also makes it to England and proceeds, by one of those coincidences so beloved of Victorian authors, to prey on Mina's best friend Lucy Westensra.  Despite the valiant efforts of her bevy of male admirers Lucy slips into death and subsequent vampirism.  Her lovers, led by the Dutchman Professor Van Helsing, are forced to impale her on a stake and remove her head.  Having acheived that, they go after main prize, pursuing the Count through the streets of London and then back to Transylvania for the final dramatic confrontation.

The success and longevity of Dracula are not due to any particular literary merit.  We are firmly in the realm of B-grade fiction here, just as most of the hundreds of Dracula movies are B-films.  Stoker's prose is clunky and awkward, his characters wafer-thin stereotypes.  His men are brave, honest and upright, but more than a little dim.  His women, even the intelligent and resourceful Mina Harker, are meek victims.  They may be worshipped and adored or attacked and defiled, but they are at the mercy of the men who surround them.

The plot, like those of many such stories, depends on impossible coincidences and impossibly stupid mistakes by the protagonists of both sides.  How, when he has him so firmly in his power, does Dracula allow Harker to escape?  Why is every single workman in England able to be bribed for information with a small sum of beer money?  Why do Lucy's protectors repeatedly fail to set a watch despite knowing she is being attacked by a vampire?  Why do they go traipsing off in the middle of the night to seek Dracula's lair, rather than waiting until daylight when they know he will be helpless?  Why, having armed themselves to the teeth with crucifixes and pieces of communion wafer, do they leave Mina alone without so much as a clove of garlic?

It's hard to take any of this seriously and I'm not sure Stoker meant us to.  Early in the piece, when Harker is first becoming suspicious of his host, he realises that although Dracula is standing behind him, he can't see him in his shaving mirror.  Dracula angrily snatches the mirror from him and hurls it from the window, smashing it into tiny pieces.  "It is very annoying," comments Harker, "for I do not see how I am to shave, unless in my watch-case or the bottom of the shaving pot, which fortunately is of metal."  Then there is Professor Van Helsing's persistent mangling of the English language, which is so tortuous as to make it impossible to take him seriously as chief vampire hunter. 

It's hard to escape the conclusion that Stoker intended this as a comedy.  Given his background on the stage, you can imagine the protectors talking in plummy English accents while the Professor burbles meaninglessly, the labourers and delivery men stumble around drunkenly bumping into things, Dracula cackles maniacally off stage and Mina Harker rolls her eyes at their stupidity, then simpers prettily when their eyes are on her.

Two things raise it above this general absurdity and have ensured its survival.  

The first is its dark undercurrent of sexual violence.  It's hard to miss the gruesome symbolism involved in killing (or at least re-killing) a beautiful young woman with a sharp stake, or the way innocent young women are transformed into ravenous but intensely seductive predators.  The idea that innocence is so quickly transformed or unmasked, that just beneath the surface of respectable society is a monster waiting to emerge, is attractive in any age.  So much more so for a repressed Victorian gentleman working hard to keep the immorality of his society hidden through strict censorship laws.

Second is the neat package of strengths and weaknesses, of fear and hope, of magic and science, that make up Dracula's conflict between good and evil.  Stoker gives more than a nod to religion, but the religion he nods to is decidedly idiosyncratic.  Dracula himself is clearly a demon, a character of pure evil and tremendous power.  He is superhumanly strong, he can shift shape at will, he can fly, he can read and manipulate minds, he is fiendishly cunning, and his bite can convert enemies into acolytes. 

Yet he also has fatal weaknesses.  He is powerful at night but powerless and trapped in daylight.  Although the heroes of the tale pray regularly for deliverance, what really stymies Dracula is not these ethereal prayers but the concrete symbols of Christian faith, deployed as magic tokens.  He is unable to abide the presence of consecrated communion wafer, or of a crucifix.  He is only able to rest in soil from his home graveyard, and his opponents can deprive him of this rest by sowing that soil with holy tokens. 

Yet alongside these ancient religious symbols, Dracula is defeated with the aid of the latest technology.  The heroes record their notes on phonograph and in shorthand, and Mina types and duplicates them on her new typewriter.  They telegraph each other, and get the drop on the Count by racing to Transylvania by rail while he travels by sailing ship.  As an ancient throwback he is powerless before the advances of British know-how.  His weaknesses are their strengths, and if they can attack him at a time and place of their choosing they can overcome.

The terrifying ancient mystery beneath the safe, scientific modern world.  The dark perversion lurking in the hearts of respectable people.  These are themes that resonate in every age.  Whether we stave off our fear through laughter, reassure ourselves by having good win out, or explore the dark depths through horrific tragedy, we need to come to terms with this reality.  Stoker's heroes may have succeeded in staking Dracula through the heart, but he lives on in their own hearts, and in ours.

Sunday, 26 May 2013

The Sower

I'm preaching on June 2 - next Sunday.  Here's what I think I'll say.

The main passage is from Luke 8:1-21, which includes the Parable of the Sower plus a couple of stories which reinforce its central message.  Supporting passages come from Isaiah 6:1-13 and 1Peter 1:17-25.

The Parable of the Sower is one of those stories of Jesus that we learnt about in Sunday School, and it's unique in being the only one of Jesus' parables which comes with its own explanation attached.  This can mean we think we understand it.  However, I wonder if we really do get it's full message, or if our familiarity blinds us. 

The story starts off with the parable itself.

4 When a great crowd gathered and people from town after town came to him, he said in a parable: 5 ‘A sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell on the path and was trampled on, and the birds of the air ate it up. 6 Some fell on the rock; and as it grew up, it withered for lack of moisture. 7 Some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew with it and choked it. 8 Some fell into good soil, and when it grew, it produced a hundredfold.’

This illustration is a preamble to the central part of the story, which contains the heart of Jesus' message.

As he said this, he called out, ‘Let anyone with ears to hear listen!’ 9 Then his disciples asked him what this parable meant. 10 He said, ‘To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God; but to others I speak in parables, so that
“looking they may not perceive,
and listening they may not understand.”
Then, having made his point, he reinforces it by going back over the parable and explaining its elements.
11 ‘Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. 12 The ones on the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. 13 The ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe only for a while and in a time of testing fall away. 14 As for what fell among the thorns, these are the ones who hear; but as they go on their way, they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature. 15 But as for that in the good soil, these are the ones who, when they hear the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patient endurance.
To understand what he's trying to say, we need to understand the passage he is quoting, which comes from Isaiah 6.  This is one of the pivotal chapters of Isaiah, recording the vision in which Isaiah is first called to be Yahweh's messenger.  Isaiah is taken up to heaven, sees the angels and hears them singing praises, and an angel cleanses his lips with a coal from the altar.  When Yahweh calls for a messenger he volunteers to go, and this is the message he is given for the people of Israel.
“Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.”
10 Make the mind of this people dull,
and stop their ears,
and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
and turn and be healed.’
11 Then I said, ‘How long, O Lord?’ And he said:
‘Until cities lie waste
without inhabitant,
and houses without people,
and the land is utterly desolate;
12 until the Lord sends everyone far away,
and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.
13 Even if a tenth part remains in it,
it will be burned again,
like a terebinth or an oak
whose stump remains standing
when it is felled.’
The holy seed is its stump.
This is not a cheerful message by any means.  It is a call for repentance, but Isaiah is not encouraged to hold any illusions.  The people will not listen, until their cities and lands are laid waste and they are taken into exile.  Isaiah is being sent to be a classic prophet of doom.
Yet his message is not totally without hope.  The Hebrew of the last verse is ambiguous, but it appears intended as a reminder not to despair.  The nation of Israel will be like a terebinth or an oak.  These trees can be cut down, and even burned, but they will still re-sprout and grow a new tree.  The NIV renders this message a little more clearly than the NRSV.
But as the terebinth and oak
leave stumps when they are cut down,
so the holy seed will be the stump in the land.
Like Isaiah, Jesus was sent to the nation of Israel with an urgent message of repentance.  He began his ministry saying; "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news."  But would the people of Israel be able to hear it, or would they be like the people of Isaiah's time and refuse the message? 
The Parable of the Sower explains how hard it will be for Jesus' hearers to receive his message.  Some will be hard-hearted and the message will make no impression on them.  Some will be shallow and timid, receiving the message but unable to stick with it when it gets hard.  Some will be distracted by other things.  Yet there will be some who hear, and the fruit they bear will more than make up for the seed that is lost.
There is a thread which runs through the Isaiah passage, the parable and into our present day, and it is the threat of looming crisis and disaster.  In Isaiah's day the people of Israel faced very real and pressing dangers.  They were being threatened by hostile empires which wanted to dominate and subjugate them.  Early in Isaiah's life the northern kingdom of Israel was destroyed and its people deported by the Assyrians.  By the end of his life the Babylonians were rising in their place and represented a real threat to the southern kingdom of Judea.  They were on the road to disaster and if they didn't repent and change course, they would be destroyed.  Isaiah's message was proved correct, a few decades later Judea was destroyed and its people also sent into exile. 
After their exile the people were able to regrow their nation from the remaining stump.  By Jesus' day there was a new threat - the Roman Empire - which dominated their lives.  They were also at risk, caught between fatal compromise and outright rebellion.  They were in danger of being either subsumed or destroyed.  They needed to change their ways before it was too late.  History tells us they did not, and forty years later they were once again destroyed and sent into exile.

We face different dangers, but their urgency is no less real.  We know that the way our civilisation is going is unsustainable environmentally, economically and socially.  We are damaging the environment we depend on, we are using finite resources as if they were infinite and the gap between rich and poor is obscenely wide.  All these problems are caused by our greed and our lack of care for one another and for God's creation.  We need to repent and start to live the way God intended for us, before it is too late.

It is hard for us to hear this message.  We are often hard-hearted and self-centred - as long as we are all right we can ignore everyone else.  We are often quick to run out of steam - we can hear something, vow to take action but soon lose our enthusiasm.  We can be distracted - and no other age in history has had as many distractions as ours, so many different voices blaring in our ears and clamouring for our attention.  Many of us will hear the message, but fail to listen.  It could be that like Isaiah's hearers, or like Jesus', we fail to avert the crisis.

Yet this is not a message of despair, it is one of hope.  Just as Isaiah likened Israel to an oak or terebinth that would re-sprout, so Jesus promises that some will hear the message and that it will bear abundant fruit.  The image of a seed is one he uses often for the Kingdom of God - a mustard seed which sprouts and spreads like a weed, a seed of corn that grows of its own accord, a field in which good and bad seeds grow together.  Once the seed is sown and has taken root, it will be impossible to eradicate, no matter what happens.  With that seed, with the Word of God which dwells in us, we have no need for despair. 

Hence in the final reading we have Peter writing to "the exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia."  Depending on your views of the date of Peter, these may be exiles from the earlier wars in the time of the Babylonians or the Seleucids, or they may in fact be exiles from the later Roman invasion.  Either way, these were people whose lives and homes, or those of their ancestors, had been destroyed and who had become refugees.  Yet they were living proof that life continues, that after disaster people rebuild and go on.  The exiles in Babylon asked, "How can we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land?"  The answer is that the Lord is still with them, wherever they are and whatever happens to them, and his word is still alive.
22 Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart.  23 You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.  24 For
‘All flesh is like grass
and all its glory like the flower of grass.
The grass withers,
and the flower falls,
25 but the word of the Lord endures for ever.’
We may fail, but the Word will not.  It will continue to be made available to us, even after the impending disaster.  The severed oak will still sprout, the seed will still produce grain if it falls on good soil.  So to finish I have composed a prayer.
Lord, it is hard for us to listen to your word.
We are often hard-hearted and refuse to listen
We are often shallow and run out of energy.
We are easily distracted and lose focus.

Help is to leave behind our hard-heartedness
our shallowness
our distractibility
and listen to your word for us in our time

Help us to bear the fruits of repentance
to abandon the things that harm and destroy
to do the things that heal and build.

When we fail
help us to listen again
and repent again.

Thankyou that your word endures forever
that you make it available to us in all times and places
and that your love for us never fails.


Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Tom Waits/The Eagles

You would have thought there was not much in common between Tom Waits and The Eagles.  Waits is a jazz singer who grew into an avant garde cult musician, makes a comfortable living and has artistic credibility to burn.  The Eagles are a country rock band who grew into a stadium rock behemoth with money to burn and comedians lining up around the block to lampoon them.  The Eagles are all lush harmonies, smooth backing and pedal steel guitar.  Waits has a gruff, raspy voice, halting piano and, as time passes, an increasing assortment of antique instruments and junkyard percussion. 

I'm not sure what the various members of the Eagles think of Waits.  In 1977 Waits said he thought listening to the Eagles was like watching paint dry.  He later apologised and explained he "was just corking off and being a prick".

However, things are not always what they seem.  Despite all these differences, the two actually have an amazing amount in common.  Here's some of the highlights.

First of all, they both emerged out of the same music scene.  Waits grew up in the Los Angeles area, cutting his musical teeth at the Troubador and other LA nightclubs in the early 1970s.  Glen Frey and Don Henley, Eagles founding members and chief songwriters, were from out of town but met at the Troubador in 1970 and the band played its first gigs there.  Both went on to be early signings with Asylum Records, founded by David Geffen in 1971.  They were both recording with Asylum at the same time, the Eagles releasing their debut in 1972 and Waits, after a few false starts, in 1973.

Second, both Waits and Henley/Frey drew a lot of their inspiration from the fictional outlaws and low-lifes of page and screen.  For Waits it was a mix of the gritty realism of the beat authors, especially Charles Bukowski, and the film noir world of petty crims, gunmen, hookers and thieves.  To be sure, Waits did his best to live the beat lifestyle, renting a room in a sleazy motel and drinking dangerous amounts of alcohol, but the underworld of Small Change, Potter's Field and Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis is pure, vivid fiction.

The Eagles drew similar inspiration from the Wild West.  They never went there - they were the orginal urban cowboys - but the value-free drifters of Tequila Sunrise, Bitter Creek or Take It Easy, the lawless outlaws of Doolin-Dalton or Outlaw Man, come straight out of the films of John Wayne, Donald Sutherland and co.  Like all good artists, both Waits and the Eagles sold their stories so well it was easy to forget they were fictions.

Last, but by no means least, the Eagles paid Waits' rent for a substantial part of 1974 and 1975.  Waits recorded the song 'Ol' 55' on his 1973 debut Closing Time, but the album struggled to get critical attention and sold slowly.  Here he is singing it a bit more recently.

Then The Eagles covered it on their third album, On The Border, released in 1974.

While Waits camped out at the Tropicana Motor Inn and lived through the long nightmare of touring as a support act/sacrificial lamb for Frank Zappa, On the Border sold by the truckload.  The royalties ensured Waits not only had somewhere to live and food to eat, but never needed to stint on the whisky.  It even drew attention to Waits himself, and many critics preferred his version.

Apparently when The Eagles heard what Waits thought of them, they said "Well OK, we ain't gonna record any more of his songs!"  By then he didn't need them.  He was off on his merry (or rather, maudlin) way and soon had other artists queuing up to take their place.  I just hope that at some point he found it in his heart to say "thankyou".

Sunday, 19 May 2013

George Augustus Robinson

I've been on holiday in Tasmania for the past week.  While I was there I visited the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery and it got me thinking about George Robinson and the fate of the original Tasmanians.

We were taught in school that the Tasmanian Aborigines had been wiped out.  The last of them, Truganini (at least that is one variant of her name) died in Hobart in 1876.  Of course this version of history is not quite true.  There are still descendents of the first Tasmanians living now.  I'll get back to them later.  In the meantime, George Augustus Robinson.

Robinson was a bricklayer and Methodist lay preacher who moved to Tasmania as a free settler in 1824.  In the 1830s he abandoned his bricklaying business and went on a mission to the remaining Aboriginal people in the eastern part of Tasmania.  His mission was prompted by the state of all-out war that had broken out between the European settlers and the original inhabitants.  For the Europeans, the Aboriginal people represented a threat to their existence, to be shot on sight.  While the Aboriginal people had greater bushcraft the Europeans had far superior firepower and there could only ever be one winner.

Robinson stood out as virtually the only European settler who made a serious attempt to forge friendships with the original inhabitants of the land, and to attempt to negotiate a peaceful settlement. 

Ultimately you could only conclude that he failed, although he may not have seen it this way.  After years of effort and immense carnage he finally persuaded the few remaining Big River and Oyster Bay peoples - about 100 of the estimated 10,000 who had been there at the time of the European arrival - to make peace (or perhaps surrender) and took them to a settlement on remote and unfruitful Flinders Island in Bass Strait.  No sensible person, European or Aboriginal, ever tried to make a permanent home on this cold, windswept patch of dirt and scrub, and within 40 years every one of them had died.

How are we to view Robinson's legacy?  Historians and writers, including those sympathetic to Aboriginal people, differ widely. 

CD Rowley, in his pioneering 1970 historical work The Destruction of Aboriginal Society, saw Robinson as something of a tragic hero.  Robinson's willingness to learn their languages, to make friends, to approach them unarmed and to live among them for months on end, contrasted with the normal attitude of his compatriots who had an almost hysterical fear of Aboriginal people and shot them on sight. 

In this context, Rowley is inclined to excuse Robinson for the Flinders Island disaster.  He acknowledges that Robinson was ignorant of the social dynamics of Aboriginal societies and that he was perhaps more interested in saving their souls than their bodies.  Nonetheless this is his summation.

To read (Robinson's) journal is to realise that even incarceration on an island off the coast could fairly seem to offer better chance of survival than any other course of action; and he had in fact by this time begun to win the necessary confidence of  a people with whom he had gone far to establish humane and trusting relationships.  It is interesting to find the intuitive understanding of a common humanity in this uneducated bricklayer.  His success highlights the timorousness of the settler community as whole.  That Robinson was to lead his people to a doom just as sure as the one from which he hoped to save them was something he could not know.

Others have not been so kind.  The novelist Mudrooroo, in Doctor Wooreddy's Prescription for Enduring the Ending of the World, portrays him as a fool and a dupe, well intentioned perhaps but easily manipulated both  by his Aboriginal companions and by Lieutenant-Governor George Arthur.  For Mudrooroo the real heroes of the story are Robinson's companions, Wooreddy and his wife Truganini, who lead him a merry dance around Tasmania, hunting kangaroo while pretending to search for uncontacted tribes, lighting huge fires to ensure anyone in range knew their whereabouts and could choose freely whether to make contact, placating Robinson with a show of friendship but keeping him at a safe distance.  Yet for Mudrooroo there is still a huge gap between Robinson and the other settlers who rob, rape and murder without compunction.  He may be a fool, but at least he means well.

The display in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery casts some doubt even on this faint praise.  They suggest that when the last surviving members of the Oyster Bay and Big River peoples agreed to accompany Robinson into Hobart to treat with Arthur, they believed they would agree terms and return to their own country with conditions in place.  In other words Robinson, intentionally or otherwise, tricked them.  While he was travelling with them in the wilds of Tasmania he was their friend and companion, but on Flinders Island he rapidly became their jailer.  He prevented their escape, regulated their lives, tried to force them to abandon their culture and adopt Westernised Christianity.  He posed as their protector, but colluded in their genocide.

I'm not in a position to judge between these competing views.  I simply place them before you for your consideration.  It's interesting, though, that the survival of the Tasmanian Aboriginal people was not a result of Robinson's efforts, but of the actions of sealers and fishermen who lived on the more remote coasts of Tasmania.  While Robinson was acting as go-between, trying in a high-minded European way to forge a settlement that could lead to the survival and civilisation of his Aboriginal friends, the sealers and fisherman took Aboriginal women to their camps as companions, and had children with them. 

These women were most probably kidnapped rather than going willingly, their children the result of rape not marriage.  The men themselves were little better than outlaws, less educated even than Robinson and living in rough huts, earning a meagre living selling seal-skins.  No sane European woman would join them there, but a law which permitted the summary execution of Aboriginal people by European farmers would hardly protect Aboriginal women even from these pariahs of European society. 

Yet this violence, rather than Robinson's religion and humane intentions, was the salvation of Tasmania's first peoples.  Survival came at a huge cost - after suffering capture and rape they lost their country, their language, their customs, their social structures.  What remained was a hybrid culture, stitched together from pieces of Aboriginal culture passed on through their mothers and bits of European lore and technology passed on from their European fathers, forged together in the fire of hard living and geographic isolation. 

Perhaps it was just luck, but I think perhaps there is another lesson for us here.  Robinson, despite his good intentions, was never able to see Aboriginal people as his equals.  He always saw himself as their protector and guide, and them as his children.  When Rowley speaks of "his people" it can only possibly be meant in a proprietorial sense.  He would never have taken an Aboriginal bride and was too upright to simply sleep with an Aboriginal woman, even with her consent. 

The sealers and fishermen, on the other hand, despite their violence, ended up discovering a common humanity.  If they were brutal to the women, they could not deny that the children were their own flesh and blood.  By the next generation, the distinctions of race disappeared and they forged their own single community.  Far from demonising the "natives" as savages with whom there could never be any compromise, they understood that their fates were literally bound up together.  It is always so, and always will be.  No man is an island, even if they live on one.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

The Apocrypha

Sometime ago I had an odd dream, which stuck in my head the way very few dreams do.  I can't remember anything about the context, but I was looking for something in my Bible and noticed a whole lot of books at the end of the Old Testament that I hadn't previously seen.  They had odd names that seemed vaguely ancient and Jewish, none of which I can now remember.  I was a little surprised but mostly just fascinated, eager to read this new stuff and find out what it was all about.

Recently I've been repeating this experience in real life, and thereby hangs a tale.

In the bibles we have as Protestants, the last book of the Old Testament is the prophetic book of Malachi, and the last historical period addressed is the immediate post-Exilic time covered in the books of Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther.  There is then a break of over 400 years until the New Testament begins with the birth of Jesus.

What was God doing in the intervening 400 years?  Well, it seems he was silent.  HA Ironside, the famous Canadian Brethren preacher, even wrote a book called The Silent Years which told the history of the Jewish people and the surrounding nations during this time, filling his readers in on such events as the invasion of Alexander, the oppressions of the Seleucid kingdom, the Maccabean revolt and subsequent reign of the Hasmoneans, and finally the subjection of the Jewish kingdom to Roman overlordship under Herod the Great.

I was taught about this "silent" period in all the Protestant churches I attended in my youth - Anglican, Uniting, Brethren, Church of Christ.  Hence it came as a slight surprise to me when I started reading more widely and learned that this was both a minority view in the Christian church, and a relatively recent innovation.

All pre-reformation editions of the Bible included, in one way or another, a series of ancient Jewish writings which are of a later date than our Protestant Old Testament but precede the New, both in their date of composition and in the stories they tell.  Although St Jerome in the late fourth century regarded these books as of lesser authority than the Hebrew Old Testament, they were included as part of his Latin translation of the Bible, the Vulgate, which for over a thousand years was the standard Catholic bible.  They were also included in the Greek and Slavonic translations used by the Orthodox church.  There were some differences between editions as to precisely what was "in" or "out", but overall the "silent years" were not silent at all. 

The following books were pretty much universally included in one way or another as part of the Old Testament.
  • 1 Esdras (an alternate version of the Hebrew Ezra)
  • Tobit
  • Judith
  • Wisdom (or "The Wisdom of Solomon")
  • Ecclesiasticus (also known as Sirach)
  • Baruch and the Epistle of Jeremiah (sometimes seperated)
  • 1 Maccabees
  • 2 Maccabees
  • Some additions to the books of Daniel ("The Prayer of Azariah", the story of Susanna and "Bel and the Dragon"), Esther and 2 Chronicles (the "Prayer of Manasseh")
Some editions also include various combinations of other books including 2 Esdras, 3 and 4 Maccabees and Psalm 151.

With the reformation came a slight difference of opinion about these Greek books, but not a major one.  The Catholic and Orthodox traditions continued to regard them as scriptural and include them in their Old Testament canons.  Both Luther in his German translation and the English translators commissioned by King James regarded them as of lesser authority but still of great value.  Hence, both the Luther Bible published in 1534 and the King James published in 1611 included these scriptures in a seperate collection of books called the Apocrypha (a plural word from the Greek for "hidden") printed between the Old and New Testaments.  The sixth article of the Church of England - "On the Sufficiency of the holy Scriptures for salvation" neatly expressed the Protestant view.

And the other Books (as Jerome saith) the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth not apply them to establish any doctrine....

Up to 1666 all editions of the King James Bible included the Apocrypha, Christians were encouraged to read them and passages from them were included in the lectionary.  However, the Westminster Confession of Faith in 1647, the most influential English non-conformist confession and the creed of most of Cromwell's supporters, explicitly excluded them, and subsequent editions of the King James Bible from non-conformist churches left them out.

The British and Foreign Bible Society dealt the death-blow in 1826 by refusing to fund the publication of the Apocrypha.  From then on, no English Protestant edition of the Bible included any of these books.  Ironside had undoubtedly read them but did not encourage his readers to follow suit.  Practicing Protestants these days tend to have several bibles in their house but none including the Apocrypha, and most have never read them.  The very word has come to mean something not genuine, perhaps even fraudulent.

Hence it's taken me until my 52nd year, and 37th as a practicing Christian, to get my hands on a decent modern translation of the Apocrypha and read them from start to finish.  It's a fascinating collection of books, and I'm planning to blog on some of the things I've read there over the next few months.  However, by way of a taster, here's some overall thoughts.  I realise this is a kind of pop philosophy, and intellectual history is a lot more complex than this, but how's this for an outline?

The canon of scripture is not as immutable as we like to think.  This doesn't matter so much to Catholic and Orthodox churches, because they see scripture as part of a living tradition which includes the subsequent teachings of the church (especially the church councils) the writings of the saints and church fathers, and the authority embodied in the church institution down to the present day.  However, an uncertain canon is a much more serious challenge for Protestants because we have downgraded the authority of church and tradition. 

I suspect it's no accident that this view of the immutable, timeless scriptures and suspicion of church tradition grew up during the modern period.  Modernist philosophy emphasised the ultimate knowability of the universe, and the existence of a set of immutable natural laws which governed all matter.  Religion was viewed in a similar way - God was also an immutable factor in the universe, his law unchangeable and ultimately knowable.  Hence the development of a clear-cut, defined canon, the meaning of which was held to be clear and consistent and which could not (and need not) be changed or added to.  Conservative authorities, on the other hand, were an impediment to the discovery of this ultimate truth, defending outmoded ideas in the name of tradition.

The result was a clear and simple, but slightly simplistic, idea of the scriptures as a mine of God's truth, which could be dug by any literate believer.  Of course the traditions were still valuable to help us understand these scriptures, but were not definitive.  The truth was out there, and it was everyone's duty to search for it. 

This view was, however, gradually chipped away by the very scholarship it inspired.  From the late 19th century up until today scholars have used their freedom to question the authorship of the various biblical books and their dating, to examine the multiple sources and points of view represented there, to compare scriptural with non-scriptural writings, to present alternative interpretations and emphases.  We have ended up with something a little like the fable of the blind men and the elephant, with each looking at the same thing yet coming to radically different conclusions.

This leaves us with three choices.  The first is the fundamentalist choice - we can reject the whole process of scholarship and hold on tight to the original view of a clear, immutable scripture.  At the opposite extreme, we can reject the whole thing as a bunch of fables and give up on it, becoming atheist or agnostic. 

Both are reasonable responses, and I don't blame anyone who opts for them.  For myself, though, I prefer to steer a course between these two, follow where the scholarship and the ideas lead, read the scriptures and the traditions with an open mind, and allow my faith to develop wherever that might lead it.  We are still part of a living tradition and if we do not deliberately kill it, it is unlikely to die of its own accord.

Thursday, 2 May 2013


I know I'm about seven years late, but I've finally got around to reading the first Twilight book.

Not being a teenage girl, or a girl of any age, I'm a long way from the intended audience for these books.  Still, I wasn't in the target audience for the Harry Potter books either, and I read all of them pretty much as they came out. 

Of course I had kids of the right age, and it was nice to share something with them.  But the early books themselves were a lot of fun, full of spells, potions, magical creatures and objects, odd characters and childish high-jinks, plus a villain dangerous enough to be scary but ultimately weak enough to be beaten by well-intentioned children.  It's a shame the later books got bloated with badly written teenage angst and clumsy attempts to darken the atmosphere, but even then there was enough fun to keep me reading.  No doubt many of the young readers who got hooked on the early books were less critical of the later ones than I was, being consumed by teenage angst themselves.

Young American author Stephenie Meyer pretty much stepped straight into JK Rowling's market niche with her Twilight books.  The first of the series, Twilight, was published in 2005, the same year as the sixth Harry Potter book.  We are introduced to Bella Swan at the age of 17, when she moves from her mother's home in arid Phoenix, Arizona to live with her father in Forks, Washington, the wettest place in the USA. 

Bella is highly intelligent and independent, and despite being painfully introverted she quickly makes friends and starts to settle into Forks' social life.  She is also incredibly clumsy and accident-prone.  This applies not only to her attempts at PE, but to her relationships.  Despite being chased by a number of nice, normal young men, she manages to fall in love with a vampire.

Of course Edward Cullen is handsome and extremely gentlemanly in a domineering, old-fashioned kind of way.  He also has a number of unique qualities, like superhuman strength and speed, unnaturally acute senses and an ability to read minds - although not Bella's, for some reason I have no doubt will be revealed in a later episode.  Then there is the fact that he saves her life twice, as if once was not enough.

However, there are a number of drawbacks.  He's way too old for her - athough he looks and pretends to be 17 he's actually over 100.  A diet consisting exclusively of blood makes dinner dates rather unusual.  Then there is the fact that he finds the unique smell of Bella's blood particularly appetising.  Not to mention that he spends his sleepless nights stalking her, creeping into her bedroom to watch her sleep, and during the day when he is not with her he reads the minds of her friends to find out what she is doing and saying.

With all this creepy behaviour it's surprising that a girl as seemingly sensible and clear-headed as Bella should fall for him, but we are in the territory of Gottfied von Strassburg here.  True Love is an overpowering force which mere mortals, and even immortal vampires, are powerless to resist.  Once Edward and Bella are hooked, there is no escape for either of them no matter how bad an idea their relationship seems.  It is just fortunate for Bella that Edward and his "family" have sworn off human blood, but their little coven is a kind of vampire equivalent of an AA meeting - Bloodsuckers Anonymous, perhaps - and its members could fall off the wagon at any time.

Sadly, Meyer is no Strassburg and this is no Tristan and Isolde.  It is certainly readable, but more like Mills and Boon with vampires.  There is even a love triangle of sorts, with Bella taking the fancy of a less scrupulous vampire who decides to stalk her in deadly earnest.  Bella finds herself rather too literally torn between two powerful males.  The hunt, and Bella's efforts to escape with the aid of Edward's "family", provide the only action in what is generally a rather dull and absurd story. 

Will Bella get her way and become a vampire, joining Edward in eternal love on the edges of human society?  Will Edward recover his own humanity and learn to eat normal food again?  Or will it all end badly for both of them?  The answers to these questions are known to millions of teenage girls and their boyfriends around the world, but I'm not sure I have the patience to read another three volumes (or sit through four blockbuster movies) to find out.

In the meantime, a word of advice to young female readers.  If you are faced with a choice between a man who wants to eat you but refrains and a man who has no intention of refraining, choose neither.  Stay single.  Or else pick one of those other nice young men who will be devoted to you without actual consumption.  The worst they can do is try to seduce you, and you are free to say no if you wish.  He may be the most handsome man on the planet, but even if he doesn't live for ever life with a bloodsucking stalker will seem like an eternity in hell.

(If you enjoyed this you can also read about Bram Stoker's Dracula, which is a whole different bottle of blood!)