A Distinctive Australian Spirituality?


art-9781922235763-cover-printWayne Hudson, Australian Religious Thought,
Clayton, VIC: Monash University Publishing, 2015
ISBN (pb): 978-1-922235-76-3
ISBN (e-book): 978-1-922235-77-0

From $AU32 online,
$32 e-book (limited free access online at nla.gov.au)

In Western Australian and Australian public library systems.

 

Reviewed by Ted Witham

 

Richard Dawkins once dismissed Genesis 22 as ‘an infamous tale’; he thought that Abraham’s actions as at the least, were ‘child abuse, ‘and if he had actually carried through his plan to sacrifice Isaac, we would have convicted him of first degree murder.’ [1]

I thought it a great pity that Professor Dawkins, who writes so eloquently on biology, missed the fact of 3,000 years of complex thought and interpretation of the Binding of Isaac that rabbis and Christian scholars have recorded. Any good scientist would not regard his experiment as the truth without taking into account the work of scientists before him. Einstein built on Newton. He certainly didn’t ignore him!

In fact, Dawkins’ hero, Charles Darwin waited 15 years before publishing On the Origin of Species. It wasn’t that Darwin doubted his findings: on the contrary, Darwin respected the fact that others had given serious thought to these topics, churchmen and enlightenment figures alike, and had come to different conclusions. Added to that the concern that Darwin had about publishing theories that would appear to deny the evangelical Christianity of his wife Emma, and Darwin’s very different attitude to Dawkins’ is revealed.

Wayne Hudson’s wide-ranging survey of Australian religious thought from 1788 until today shows that we are like Richard Dawkins in our inability to see the richness of religious writings in our country.

According to the publisher’s blurb Australian Religious Thought is ‘the first major survey of this field.’ Wayne Hudson is a Professor in the Centre for the History of European Discourses at the University of Queensland. He is widely read in history, theology, philosophy and literature from 18th Century Europe and on through Australian European settlement. From this store of intellectual life, he shows the surprising amount of religious writings that have been produced in Australia. He is generous about the quality of distinctive Australian theology, but demonstrates that religious thought is much wider than Christian theology.

Dr Hudson explores six themes in writings about the sacred: Shapes of Disbelief, Sacral Secularity, Religious Liberalism, Religious Thought and Philosophy, Theology in Development, and Postsecular Consciousness. His book aims at the general reader, and most readers will applaud the extraordinary range of references. There may have been a cost factor in the decision not to include a formal bibliography which would have added another third to the size of the volume!

I particularly appreciated the ways in which Australian writers have stretched the concept of God. I recently reviewed Lorraine Parkinson’s new book, Made on Earth,  which argues that the divinity of Jesus was not intended by the Gospel writers and so we can discount the doctrine of the Trinity.  The joy of Australian Religious Thought is to discover that this is not a new heresy in 2016. Hudson quotes Charles Strong founder of the Australian Church who was a proponent of this view from early in the 20th Century. In addition, he traces the proposition back to German historian Adolph von Harnack and celebrity missionary Albert Schweitzer.

Hudson laments the lack of sources showing the impact Aboriginal spiritualities have had on the wider culture, but explores sufficient writers to prime my curiosity.

He suggests that, far from simple secularity, Australians are developing a distinctive religious sensibility. Its nature is partly encompassed in the phrase ‘sacral secularity’. For me, as a Christian reader, this book was like being in a closed room and suddenly having the doors thrown open to disclose a far bigger house. It is good to have more light stream in even as I continue to regard my room as my home.

The book will appeal to all Australians seriously interested in the development of distinctive Australian culture.

—–o0o——

[1] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, London: Random House, 2006, 265

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Helpful Whiff of Heresy


5111brslwkl-_sx142_sy224_sclzzzzzzz_Lorraine Parkinson,
Made on Earth: how the gospel writers created the Christ, Richmond, VIC: Spectrum Publications, 2016.
ISBN 9780867862546
Online: Paperback $49, Kindle $11.99

Reviewed by Ted Witham

For some years, I’ve held lightly to the doctrine that Jesus Christ was fully human and fully divine. It’s not that I wish to demote the importance of Jesus, which was the purpose of the original dogma. It’s more that a pre-modern conception of divinity does not do justice to the ways in which Jesus of Nazareth actually  connects me with the sacred world.
Lorraine Parkinson’s new book Made on Earth helps me on my journey of belief by adding to the ways in which I can articulate my unease about Christology. She systematically works through the gospels in the order of their writing – Mark, Matthew, Luke and John – to show how the message of Jesus about the kingdom was deliberately transformed into a message about the identity of Jesus as the expected Messiah.
Lorraine Parkinson is a retired ordained minister in the Uniting Church based in Victoria, and is in demand as a speaker for meetings of progressive Christians around Australia.
She tells the story crisply of how the infancy narratives appear to have been added to Matthew and Luke inventing the idea of Jesus being conceived by the Holy Spirit, and thereby being God’s Son. She reveals how the life of Jesus was fitted into the typology of Moses or Elijah to further the argument for Jesus’ more than human status. The gospels

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incomprehensible?

were a sermon to persuade readers that Jesus had transcended Judaism and that his followers needed to distinguish themselves from the Jews.

 
She makes a plea for ‘progressive Christians’ to turn back to the original teachings of Jesus. The gospel of Jesus as the one Messiah  has led to a church that

  1. relies on fear (making sure you are right with God so you can enter the afterlife),
  2. that promotes anti-Semitism (the Jews are depicted as Christ-killers), and
  3. that ends up as Christendom (the Church as a new Roman Empire focused on power).

Returning to a simple reliance on the Sermon on the Mount and the parables of Jesus will invigorate individual followers of the Way of Jesus and remove the weight of having doctrinal commitments to a divine Christ.
She asks us to remember that the Gospel writers were ordinary human beings who believed they were inspired by the Holy Spirit. Her arguments here appear to be based on common sense alone and I would have liked her to wrestle with the theology of inspiration a little more deeply. As followers of Jesus, understanding God’s truth and how we know it is an important issue.

 
This book is dangerous. It emits a whiff of heresy. I admire Lorraine Parkinson’s honest courage in questioning the 3rd and 4th Century interpretations of the meaning of the Gospel. We need prophets to show the way forward for followers of Jesus of Nazareth, and Made on Earth is an important step on that path.

sermon-on-the-mount
Sant’Apollinare, Ravenna – mosaic

Anzac re-visited


Stephen Daisley, Traitor, Melbourne: Text Publishing 2011, paperback 291 pages

from $AUD16 online

Reviewed by Ted Witham

Traitor is a sensitive exploration of the Anzac myth through the life of David Monroe, hero of Gallipoli and the trenches of France. While wounded, David takes it on himself to guard a young Turkish doctor, Mahmoud, who had been captured when the two of them were trying to save the life of an Australian boy. He forms a deep friendship with Mahmoud, who teaches him about Sufism and the poetry of Rumi. He decides to help Mahmoud escape to his home village, but they are betrayed by their Greek boatman. David is sentenced to death for desertion, but the war ends and he is pardoned.

David then returns to the quiet life of a shepherd in New Zealand, unable to ever make good in a society which never completely forgives him for his ‘treachery’.

Traitor is Daisley’s first novel, and was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Award in 2011. Daisley is a West Australian writer who delves deeply into the Australian psyche. I found myself coming back to the book again and again, unable to put it down. The story begins with David being questioned by intelligence officers, a scene with a Kafkaesque edge, and then unfolds as the past impinges on the present.

I was impressed by the lightness of touch in the story-telling: it is beautifully crafted, and the reader is rarely aware of the mechanics of the story. I felt I was in David’s world, and that the little things in his present really did touch off his memories. I felt I could taste the cold in the New Zealand air and smell the after-birth as he moved about the lambing flats, and I felt nauseated by his descriptions of death in the trenches, and genuinely moved by his love for Mahmoud and the woman he could never marry, Sarah.

I am looking forward to diving into Stephen Daisley’s second novel, Coming Rain.

From David’s Harp to Praise Songs in the 21st Century


Tim Dowley, Christian Music: A Global History, Oxford: Lion Hudson Plc (2011)

ISBN: 0745953247 / 9780745953243

263 pages, illustrated, hardcover from $AU 29.50 online.

In Australian Libraries: http://trove.nla.gov.au/version/203573249

Reviewed by Ted Witham

 

Tim Dowley is a church historian who has written biographies of J.S. Bach and Robert Schumann. Christian Music is an historical survey of everything musical in Christian worship from David’s harp to 21st Century praise music. It covers contemporary Christian music on every continent, including Australian and the Pacific, and every style of music from choral to hymns to instrumental.

It was good to be reminded of the rise of Christian rock and the banning of early practitioners like Larry Norman, 1970s pioneer of “Jesus Music”, and to see his place in the development from Gospel to praise music.

The strength of this book is its breadth, and the clarity with which such a wide range of music is described. It is beautifully and generously illustrated adding a further dimension of understanding: depictions of early instruments with comments on their accuracy are a great aid to understanding a little better how the music of each period sounded. A few screenshots show the development of musical notation and its impact on composition without drowning the reader in technical description, and sensitive portraits make the viewer ponder the sensibility of individual composers.

Seven specialist contributors take the reader to places where Dr Dowley was not so familiar: Dr Mark Evans is the guide for Australia and the Pacific, Lisbon-based Orthodox priest the Reverend Dr Ivan Moody explores Orthodox music.

Of course, breadth leads to mistakes of over-simplification. Gustav Mahler, for example, whose music has a complex and intentional Christian dimension, is dismissed in a sentence: “Gustav Mahler, a convert to Catholicism, confessed he could not compose a mass because he could not affirm the Credo.” (p.165). In contrast the sceptic Verdi and the Jewish Mendelssohn rightly receive one page and three pages respectively for their efforts in writing music around Christian themes (p.162, pp.159-161).

To produce a book like this, charmingly presented, wide-ranging and clearly written, of course involves many choices about inclusions. It is too easy to nit-pick on the basis of what has been left out. What has been left in covers a huge range of material placed in a narrative which reveals the dynamism, inventiveness and beauty of music inspired by Christian faith and used in Christian worship.

It will remain on my shelf as a reference and a companion to treasure.

Dr Tim Dowley

Confession Worth Reading


William Peak, The Oblate’s Confession, Secant Publishing 2014.
416 pages.

$US18.54 (pre-order on-line)

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A novel set in a monastery in 7th Century Northumbria? Certainly the promise of the historical religious setting drew me to it. I was pre-disposed to enjoy the tale of Winwæd, given to the monastery at Redestone as a boy – the oblate of the title – and living through changes brought to that enclosed world by disease and by impinging politics.

William Peak’s first novel is beautifully told. Winwæd luxuriates in language, in seeing things aright. His tale is both textured and layered. The details, both of daily life in 7th Century England and in the shifting power of kings and warriors – all lovingly researched and presented – create Winwæd’s world convincingly. The guilt Winwæd carries, and which he expresses in his confession, creates the tension in the story as his understanding of his actions grows, and ours with it.

We experience the changes as he grows in the different friendships Winwæd establishes, from Prior Dagan, who takes him on as a very young boy, to the friendship with the hermit living in the mountain, and to the Brother who runs the furnace, are well drawn.

As Winwæd learns to pray from the hermit, so we too learn mystical prayer from him. The hermit’s story of the young child lost in the forest who runs here, there and everywhere, looking to find his way, is pertinent. The child eventually exhausts himself just at the moment of spying a light coming from a cleared field. He collapses before a thick hedge, unable to find a way or to move forward. At the bottom of the hedge is a small space, just big enough to wriggle through, and thus he finds his way home: such is prayer.

Redestone monastery stands for a Christianity not quite settled in its environment, just as Roman Christianity was returning to Britain, but still remembering its Celtic roots. It may be this sense of being at odds with its society that makes this work of fiction speak so clearly to the reader.

I thoroughly enjoyed Winwæd’s confession. He kept me wondering until the end.

The end of history and the start of hope


Niels Peter Lemche, The Old Testament between Theology and History: A Critical Survey, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008.

From $AUD 45 online

Is held by some Australian libraries.

Reviewed by Ted Witham

Niels Peter Lemche claims that about 200 years ago Western Christians started asking the question “Did it really happen?” about events in the Old Testament. About the same time the Romantic idea of the nation state grew out of revolutions and rebellions. Kings no longer defined people. We began to speak of nations as “She”, and attributed actions to nations.

 

The combination of using the Bible as a source book for a history of Ancient Israel and the rise of nationalism was a disaster. Lemche claims that imperialistic nations felt justified in treating the inhabitants of places they conquered in the same manner as Joshua had treated the Canaanites. Because Israel, that ancient nation in the story had ignored, mistreated, dehumanised and only just tolerated the ongoing presence of the original inhabitants of the land God was giving them, so the English in Australia or the French in Africa could do the same.

 

It may be that the Holocaust happened partly because European Christians had asked of the Old Testament, “Did it really happen?” The German nation put to the ban the enemies of Christ, who were defined as not even really human beings. And paradoxically, the Israeli nation may be absorbing the same thinking when she continues to expand her settlements as if there were no Palestinians living where she seeks to build.

 

Lemche, who is Professor at the Department for Biblical Exegesis at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, reveals the process by which the critical-historical method of understanding the Old Testament has unravelled. Again and again he shows that proofs of historical events in the Bible are based on circular reasoning. No evidence for a wide-spread empire based around southern Palestine in the 9th or 10th Centuries BCE has ever been found. There is no evidence for Kings David and Solomon outside of the Bible. Lemche shows how hopeful scholars make their claims for David and Solomon from the Books of Samuel and Kings and then use the same books as evidence for those claims.

 

There is attestation outside the Bible in the 8th Century for a small “House of Omri”, which the Bible calls the northern kingdom of Israel. There is precious little other corroborating evidence for the events or the personalities described in the Bible.

The Amarna letters – evidence from the time

 

What then should we do? Discard the Old Testament as simply unreliable? Overall Professor Lemche calls us to look afresh both at the original purpose of the Old Testament and at the history of the area we call Palestine.

 

Lemche believes the Old Testament was written much later than scholars have previously argued, perhaps in the 2nd or 1st Centuries BC. It was certainly written in a time of diaspora and written for the Jews to respond to the fact that they were scattered from their land. They were in possession of two foundation myths, those of exodus and exile, so the purpose in writing was to weave these themes into an exhortation to stand apart from the people around them by turning to the God who led them out of slavery and alienation.

 

Their purpose was not to write a coherent documentary of the past; it was to create an expectation that God was continuing to act among God’s people, and that a Messiah would come to rescue them. The book of Psalms, for example, is ordered to reveal this messianic agenda.

 

The first Christians often quoted the Old Testament. In the time of Jesus, there was certainly no bound volume in Hebrew or Greek called “The Old Testament”. The New Testament authors quoted usually from the Greek translation of Old Testament books. The way Christians picked up from these books the themes of Law and Gospel, Promise and Fulfilment is covered briefly. These sections were tantalising. I wanted more on this.

 

In a lengthy Appendix, Lemche uses the tools of a modern historian to sketch a history of Palestine from pre-historic times to modern Israel: using the long perspective of the geography and fauna of the land, to the middle perspective of human occupation and land use, to the shorter perspective of the social and political groupings in Palestine. History is still important; but it is found from evidence, not from books that were always intended to be read as theology and for spiritual encouragement.

 

Professor Lemche describes himself and his colleagues in the “Copenhagen School” as “radical theologians”. He asserts that the “collapse of history” in Old Testament studies has liberated the Hebrew Bible. As he says, “We now have the stories unmolested.”

 

Niels Peter Lemche

In this volume Professor Lemche has written a comprehensive survey of Old Testament scholarship of the last 50 years. As I read it, I felt he was putting into this book his whole journey of scholarship and discovery. It is not always easy to read. He wrote it originally in Danish, and then translated it himself with help from Professor Jim West and the book’s American publisher. The result is uneven. It changes register abruptly from academic style to colloquial. The sentences are sometimes long and convoluted. For such a summative work, a thorough edit or a skilled translator would have been helpful.

 

But I found the book well worth persevering with. For some Christians, the idea of “the collapse of history” will be challenging; but for most of us, refocusing the Bible on its theological foundations and letting go of the need to find dates for the Exodus or prove Abraham existed clears the way to read afresh the Old Testament and its promise of a Messiah.

Study Guide: LOOKING THROUGH THE CROSS


STUDY GUIDE

Graham Tomlin, Looking Through the Cross: The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book 2014,
Bloomsbury Academic (2014), Paperback, 240 pages.
Also available from Amazon in Kindle format.

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Chapter 1: The Cross and Wisdom

Questions for Individual Reflection & Group Discussion:

1. Tomlin says that St Paul criticised the Corinthian church for living according to the wisdom of the surrounding society. Does our contemporary church adapt itself too easily to contemporary society?

2. ‘A crucified, shamed and humiliated man is in fact the wisdom and the revelation of the God who made the universe.’ (p. 25) If this is so, what does the cross reveal about God?

Activity & Prayer Cues:

Find a crucifix or picture of Jesus on the cross that speaks to you in some way of God’s wisdom. The cover picture of Looking Through the Cross may be suitable. Sit before it in silence without analysing it or using words to pray. Simply be conscious of God’s presence with you.

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Chapter 2: The Cross and Evil

Questions for Individual Reflection & Group Discussion:

1. Can you name evidence for the ‘deep wound in creation that needs healing’? (p. 42) Where can you see such a wound today?

2. Does it make sense for Jesus to be a representative of all humanity? How can that be?

Activity & Prayer Cues:

Find the words of ‘Amazing Grace’ by John Newton (Together in Song 129) or Graham Kendrick’s ‘Servant King’ (Together in Song 256) or Thomas Troeger’s extraordinary ‘A Spendthrift Lover’ (TiS 676). Take the words to a quiet place where you will not be disturbed and read them through several times as a way of thanking God for the cross overcoming evil.

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Chapter 3: The Cross and Power

Questions for Individual Reflection & Group Discussion:

1. Tomlin describes Albert Schweitzer’s choice to work among the poor of Africa as an exercise of power for the sake of other people. Name other examples of this kind of power. Why is it power to make a choice that the world sees as the way of weakness?

2. ‘When we are loved we are able to change. When we are unloved, we dig in our heels and refuse to budge.’ (p.78) Think of a time when you were empowered because you knew you were loved.

Activity & Prayer Cues:

Learn the ‘Jesus Prayer’ by heart: ‘Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ Use is to pray for those whom you love by substituting the name of each of these people for the word me. So, to pray for my wife, I pray, ‘Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on Name, a sinner.’

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Chapter 4: The Cross and Identity

Questions for Individual Reflection & Group Discussion:

1. In what tangible ways has your Christian faith given you a new identity? Tell the story of the different you that now lives in Christ.

2. How do you feel the pull of your old identity? What keeps pulling you back from full life in Christ?

Activity & Prayer Cues:

When Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio was elected Pope, he chose the name Francis for this next stage of his ministry. What name would you choose for yourself to signify who you are now in Christ? Have fun trying on some different names!

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Chapter 5: The Cross and Suffering

Questions for Individual Reflection & Group Discussion:

1. Can you make sense of the idea that God in Jesus undergoes suffering but God the Father does not? How does this idea help us live with ongoing suffering?

2. When we ‘take up our crosses’ and understand the cross of Christ in a ‘deep, personal heartfelt way’, Tomlin says our hearts are softer. Has he made the right connection? Does choosing suffering increase our empathy?

 

Activity & Prayer Cues:

Pray in silence before the picture of the cross or crucifixion that you used for Chapter 1. Which suffering people in the world today call to you for a response? What is a costly and meaningful response that you can make to alleviate that suffering?

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Chapter 6: The Cross and Ambition

Questions for Individual Reflection & Group Discussion:

1. ‘Imagine for a moment a culture where everyone’s main aim was to seek the good of their neighbour, where the only social competitiveness was to find ways to bless the person next door.’ (p. 142) What is stopping us?

2. What strategies should we adopt to learn from modern servants (‘cleaners, gardeners and dinner ladies’ p. 145)? Be ambitious to use the strategies you identify.

Activity & Prayer Cues:

Make a list of serving activities that you don’t normally do that you could undertake today. For example, I could collect cups and plates and load the dish-washer after morning tea at church. Aim to do them. Tick each one off as you do it. Destroy the list at the end of the day. Repeat the exercise next week.

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Chapter 7: The Cross and Failure

Questions for Individual Reflection & Group Discussion:

1. Is there a sense in which the crucifixion was a failure? Is the crucifixion a phenomenon that looked at from one side is a failure and from another side is a triumph – the means of our coming close to God?

2. Reflect on what you have learned from failure. If you are in a group, consider what aspects of these learnings you can share with the group.

Activity & Prayer Cues:

Read John 21:15-19 several times slowly, aloud if you can. Be conscious of your breathing. Put yourself in Peter’s position, remembering that he has returned to Galilee a failure. As Jesus asks the question ‘Do you love me?’ identify what Peter may have felt. Do you feel a transition?

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Chapter 8: The Cross and Reconciliation

Questions for Individual Reflection & Group Discussion:

1. What walls dividing people in the Australian community should the Christian community be working to break down?

2. What programs or processes does your local church have in place to help people grow in moral maturity?

 

Activity & Prayer Cues:

What three specific actions can we take to make our faith community more of a ‘mother’, a nursery of Christian action and reconciliation (pp. 189-190)?

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Chapter 9: The Cross and Life

Questions for Individual Reflection & Group Discussion:

1. Thinking of the death of your grandparent or parent or other loved one some years ago, what signs of new life do you discern in their dying?

2. Do you agree with C.S. Lewis that we are outside the real world (p. 213)? What does he mean by this image? What does he mean by saying that we shall get in?

Activity & Prayer Cues:

Using a simple medium (crayons or coloured pencils), draw seeds being buried, germinating, growing and bearing fruit. As you draw, meditate on the power of new life, the continuities and the discontinuities between seed and flowering plant, the imbalance between the old and the new life.

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