King Richard and me


Warming up for next week’s monologue workshop:

King Richard III: A History Lesson

Would you believe I’m a clone of King Richard,
the last of Plantagenet line?
To start with, his spine describes an S-bend,
so his skeleton looks exactly like mine.

A left-hander like me was good King Richard the Third,
so with the sword in his left he surprised.
Does the archaeological record contend
That molly-dukers too are baptised?

A brother of brothers was Richard the King,
All of them in the end killed.
Then his nephews made way for him to ascend,
at murder he was mightily skilled.

Then Richard the Third was himself finished off,
Giving the field to bad Henry Tudor.
While Harry and family may have been thrilled,
It’s hard now to say who was the shrewder.

One thing’s for sure when comparing little me is,
Being a King may be fun while you’re thriving,
But being a nobody you’re much more fulfilled:
At least in the end you’re surviving!

  • Ted Witham 2017
Bosworth Battlefield Anniversary Re-enactment 2013

Battle of Bosworth

 

 

Sticks and Stones: Adam Goodes and Australian Racism


First published on Starts at Sixty website, August 12, 2015.

I’ve never told anybody this story before. 

61 years ago on the veranda of the Infants’ Class Room at Tambellup School, I called Valma Eades ‘a black boong’. I remember the year precisely because the Infants’ (Year I) Room was separate from the rest of the school, and I sought out Valma on the veranda. This veranda was up two steps from a bitumen path. I was a skinny five-year-old white boy, and Valma must have been seven. She loomed over me.

But where on earth did I find the expression ‘black boong’? It was not a term that our family used. I think I had heard the town kids whispering it, and I wondered what the reaction would be if I used it directly on an Aboriginal person, so one play-time, I sought out Valma Eades and  I called her ‘a black boong’. Her reaction was instant and strong. Her fist landed under my jaw and lifted me off the veranda into the air. I landed on my back on the bitumen path.

In that instant of painful encounter first with Valma’s fist and then the hard bitumen path, I learned that Valma was right and I was wrong. Even though I was only five, I learned that it was wrong to use racist names against Aboriginal people. Even though issues between children should not be resolved through violence, in this case, Valma was right to give me a swift, sharp lesson.

You see, I lived on a 4,000 acre (2,000 hectare) family farm that until 100 years before had been the summer range of Valma’s great-grand-parents and their family group. On our farm was a freshwater lake that we called Lake Toolbrunup. Each year for forty, maybe fifty thousand years until just the end of the 19th Century, large groups of Noongar people had gathered at Lake Toolbrunup at the end of summer to enjoy its water,the freshwater crayfish they called ‘gilgies’ and cool shade. Now it supported our sheep.

How this farm had come into the possession of our family, and the white people from whom we had bought it, neither Valma and I had any idea.

Valma, on the other hand, lived with her parents and brothers and sisters  in a canvas tent, 6 foot by 4 foot, on a reservation on the edge of town. A trough at the end of the line of tents boasted one cold water tap between two tents. Their only heating in the bitter Tambelllup winters was an outdoor wood fire. To keep warm, kids burrowed into the sand near the fire. Valma’s mother cooked over this fire.

There were Aboriginal children at the Tambellup school who camped with their families on our farm, as on other farms. They lived in tents and brush shelters. Their diet was kangaroo, sheep and damper. We knew, vaguely as six-year-olds, that the feared Mister A.O. Neville, Protector of Aborigines, had prescribed the places where Aboriginal families could live and who they could live with.

However this exchange of land had taken place, Valma and I were brushed with this history. There was unfathomable sorry business between us. And this history was, and is still, inscribed on every Australian girl and boy. None of us can escape the fact that we live in the shadow of a gigantic land swap.

White Australians booing Adam Goodes is always wrong, just as calling Valma Eades ‘a black boong’ was always wrong. And if Adam Goodes is strong enough to stand up and fight back, it hurts, just as Valma Eades’  uppercut hurt. So it should.

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

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.

Francis – program notes


Program notes for the play Francis, presented by the Midnite Youth Theatre Company, November 21, 22, 23 and 24, by Julian Mitchell and directed by Drew Stocker tssf.

By Ted Witham tssf

Poster for the play “Francis”

Saint Francis of Assisi became a leader by giving power away. Francis Bernadone was born in 1181 or 1182 and grew up in a wealthy merchant’s house. As a teenager, he became a leader of wild parties through the streets of Assisi. He was known as ‘The King of the Revels’, and used his money to attract friends.

Like all young men in Assisi, Francis chose to join in the little wars the town fought – for the Emperor (against the Pope) and against the neighbouring hill-town of Perugia. After one battle Francis was taken prisoner in a dark prison in Perugia. Having a wealthy father meant that he was held for ransom.  It took a year to negotiate a price for his release. He began to realise that even with money he couldn’t have what he wanted when he wanted.

After his release he bought a knighthood to fight in the crusades. Instead of a glorious tour in Palestine, Francis returned home sick. In a vision God showed him that he didn’t want him to be a knight, so he gave away his lavish armour.

Everywhere around him, Francis could see people fighting: fighting to keep their possessions and power. Assisi had always been a barter economy, but now, as Francis grew to manhood, it was becoming a greedy money economy. Instead of giving each other life’s necessities, the people of Assisi began to amass cash. The division between the privileged and the poor grew rapidly.

Francis saw a solution to this greed. All people should treat each other as members of their family. Instead of grabbing resources for themselves, they should share with their brothers and sisters what they had. Francis started a community of those who would follow this way. He dreamed of a new world where people gave everything away to each other, so all would be equally rich.

Francis struggled for the rest of his life to find the best way to be the leader of this community. His idea of a leader was someone who did not have power over others. Like Jesus, Francis wanted to be the leader in serving others, a servant leader, a leader in giving power away. The concept was – and is – difficult to put into practice, but the communities Francis founded continue to try to make it work.

Ratzinger and the Reason to be Christ-centred


1974 Theological College – (Trinity College, Melbourne)

A fellow theological student and I were arguing ferociously. I was 25, and presented the Left’s view of Aboriginal rights in the sharply political terms I had learned from the Campaign for Racial Equality.

‘Come back and talk to me when you can argue as a Christian,’ my friend told me.
~~~~ ~~~~ ~~~~

I remember clearly the challenge he put to me that day, although I know he looks back on that statement with embarrassment at the priggishness of his former self.

Unless Christ is central, goes the argument, it’s not Christian. And unless Christ is central to your thoughts about any subject, then they are sub-Christian. All these decades later, I am still challenged by this position, and even more so by my reading of Joseph Ratzinger’s The Theology of History in Bonaventure.

I have wanted for some time to read this exploration of Bonaventure, and I am enjoying the experience. Ratzinger is learned and lucid, a teacher whose range is so wide that he includes the reader by providing enough backstory. For example, he shows how Bonaventure differed from Thomas Aquinas in his treatment of Aristotle, because Bonaventure wanted to preserve the primacy of Christ in his philosophy. Ratzinger delights by showing not only where they disagreed but the courtesy with which Bonaventure attacks the arguments and never the person of Thomas.

And the central challenge Bonaventure throws to us is to argue for a radically Christian view of history, in which Christ is the central point, and in this age of the Holy Spirit, we are returning to the Father. As Ratzinger diagrams it: Father > egressus > Christus > regressus > Father. (To read Ratzinger, your Latin needs to be reasonably tuned.)

In our age, we have become so used to secular versions of history and time, notably the past-centred view of conservatives; the apocalyptic view of ruptured time promoted by the Green movement and the various views of time implicit in scientists’ narratives around cosmic and biological origins.

Bonaventure’s challenge to us is to see history in God’s terms. The victory of Jesus on the cross and his sending of the Spirit change the direction of history – not just salvation history, but political history, human history and the history of creation. Bonaventure is a medieval scholar; he does play with different schema of sevens (seven days of Creation, seven days of Redemption, seven aeons of the new Creation), threes (Creation, Redemption, New Creation), and twos (Old and New), but these elaborate and fascinating frameworks all point back to the centre-point who is Christ.

We are rightly enthusiastic for inter-faith dialogue and the ways other faiths can deepen our own. But how do I deal with Bonaventure’s insistence that the final word is Christ’s? We fear ecological destruction, but does the confidence of our return to Christ sharpen our concern or bolster our hopes for the future? We worry about the imbalance of the world between a wealthy West, a rising China and poverty and violence. Do Bonaventure’s certainties reduce those worries?

Sometimes the Pope’s present pronouncements seem to come from another world. Maybe they do. His love for Bonaventure and the place of the Franciscans in history indicate that Ratzinger’s views have been heavily shaped by the ‘other world’ – that of medieval theology.

I am glad to be challenged again to argue as a Christian, and to place Christ at the centre in all my thinking.