When Footscray had a beach, and the Maribyrnong River flowed through ‘grassy country’

George Gilbert, Maribyrnong River (c. 1850)

George Gilbert, ‘Maribyrnong River’ (c. 1850)

It’s a cold day here in Melbourne, perfect weather for catching up on a bit of reading. So I’ve been reading a few little books on local history, particularly on the Wurundjeri and the Yalukit-willam people. At the moment, I’m particularly enjoying Isabel Ellender and Peter Christiansen’s beautifully-produced book People of the Merri Merri: The Wurundjeri in Colonial Days. And a cup of tea or so ago, I was struck by these words by Gary Presland from his little booklet The First Residents of Melbourne’s Western Region. I imagine that this was partly because I grew up on the Maribyrnong River, and still travel along its banks on most days:

When Europeans first settled in the Port Phillip district, they saw a landscape which looked vastly different to that we see today. But that landscape itself was a result of long processes of change, some of which had been going on for hundreds of thousands of years. There is some evidence to show that people were living in the Maribyrnong River [sic] valley, near present-day Keilor, about 40,000 years ago. Since that time there have been enormous changes to the landscape – all of which Koories [sic] must have witnessed and lived through.

Many of the most spectacular and significant changes to the countryside have been to the Maribyrnong-Yarra River system.

Ten thousand years ago the valley of the Yarra River was more than thirty-five metres deeper than it is today and the river flowed at the bottom of a deep canyon. At that time the world’s sea level was considerably lower because a great deal of water was locked up in the ice sheets covering Europe. So there was no water in Port Phillip Bay, and instead of flowing through the flat land in West Melbourne the Yarra turned to the south and flowed down the eastern side of a large grassy plain. At this time the Maribyrnong River flowed more directly to the south east and joined up with the Yarra near what is now Williamstown.

In the long period that Koories have lived in the Melbourne area, the Maribyrnong and Yarra River system has deposited a great deal of mud and silt in the river valleys, and as a result the ground level has been raised by hundreds of metres.

From about 10,000 years ago, the sea started to rise, as the Ice Age came to an end. As the ice sheets in the northern hemisphere melted, the water flowed back into the sea and the level slowly rose. By about 8,500 years ago Bass Strait was flooded, and the gradually-rising sea had reached Port Phillip Heads and began to fill the area of Port Phillip. The sea continued to rise until about 7,000 years ago, by which time the level of water in the Bay was much higher than it is today. The top of the Bay then stretched as far north as Flemington and water covered the area of Flemington Racecourse and many of the inner city areas such as the lower parts of West Melbourne, Port and South Melbourne, and St Kilda. At this time Footscray was a beach-side area and the Maribyrnong River was affected by tides as far north as Braybrook.

When the sea level stabilized at its present height, about 5,000 years ago, the waters of the Bay retreated a little. During the previous 2,000 years a new land surface had been built up by the accumulation of silt in the bay water. The ground surface in the flat area where Victoria, Swanston and Appleton Docks were later constructed, and through which Footscray Road and Dynon Road now run, is a result of this build-up of silt. [ed. – You can read more about that here.]

When Europeans first arrived, they were attracted by the sweeping grasslands to the west of the Maribyrnong River. The wide volcanic plain, the edge of which is now covered by the western suburbs, presented rich pastures for the colonists’ sheep. There was a thick covering of native grasses, with a few trees growing along the major water courses, such as Kororoit Creek.

Those ‘sweeping grasslands’ were elsewhere described thus by George Robinson when he visited the Port Phillip settlement in December 1836:

Saw nothing but grassy country, open forest, plenty gum and wild cherry. Saw where the natives had encamped, plenty of trees notched where they had climbed for opossums …. There are herds of forest kangaroo immensely large, a short distance from the settlement, also flocks of emus on the western plains fifty and sixty in a drove …. The country through which I travelled to the Salt Water (Maribyrnong) River had a park-like appearance, kangaroo grass being the principal, the trees she-oak, wattle, honeysuckle. Saw a blue flower, thorny appearance. Numerous old native huts.


Maribyrnong River, Sunrise. 15 July 2017.

On dangerous ideas to change the world

A recent episode of Q&A, filmed during the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, dispensed with the most-usual band of dull politicians and instead hosted Peter Hitchens and Germaine Greer (a regular guest on the show), as well as two lesser minds – Hanna Rosin and Dan Savage. (Incidentally, I’ve never seen Tony Jones, who normally does a stellar job, moderate the discussion as poorly as he did. An off night for Tony.) As each guest responded to questions on subjects as diverse as the collapse of Western civilization, internet hook ups, women’s liberation, conservative politics and the permanence (or otherwise) of marriage in the ‘modern’ world, it became startlingly obvious that not only was Hitchens by far the best student of history on the panel but that he was also the only one who seems to hae a scoobie about the moral realities that give shape to such.

The final question, which came from Lisa Malouf, in more ways than one elicited the most revealing responses. The question was: ‘Which so-called dangerous idea do you each think would have the greatest potential to change the world for the better if were implemented?’

Here are the responses:

The entire episode, which is worth watching, can be downloaded here.

‘The Conversion of the Māori’: a review

Timothy Yates, The Conversion of the Māori: Years of Religious and Social Change, 1814–1842 (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2013). ISBN 978-0-8028-6945-6. 150pp.

A guest post by Graeme Ferguson

When James Hamlin, my great, great grandfather, joined the CMS mission at Paihia in 1826, he came as an artisan lay missionary. His trade was flax dressing. He quickly found that not only was the New Zealand flax a distinctively different species, but also that the Māori knew a great deal more about flax weaving than he did. As a result, his life changed direction. He became a fluent idiomatic Māori linguist able to contribute to the translation of the Scriptures into Māori; he was a trusted mediator and negotiator between warring tribes; he was a faithful catechist and church planter in places where Pākehā rarely penetrated; he was a dogged explorer and a good farmer. In the last years of his long service, Selwyn was finally persuaded against his better judgement to ordain him. (Hamlin, after all, was not a ‘gentleman’.) With his wife, Elizabeth, they had twelve children. Two sons intermarried with local tribes-people so that their descendants reflect the unity in diversity of the meeting of the races in the development of this country. At Captain Symonds request, he called the hui of the Manukau tribes, in the area of Awhitu to witness the Treaty of Waitangi. Te Whero Whero who was present, ensured that few Manukau chiefs signed, since his authority as Māori king and Paramount Chief of Tainui was not to be compromised.

Hamlin’s life of undistinguished, faithful service encapsulates many of the questions that any writer on the formative years of the New Zealand mission needs to confront. It is with these questions that I approached Timothy Yates’ book in Eerdmans’ series Studies in the History of Christian Missions (SHCM).

Yates’ overview of the development of the Christian mission in New Zealand is a competent survey. It recognises the role of Māori in transmitting the Gospel so that missionaries in newly planted stations already found worshipping communities who had been told the Christian story. This could have been further developed. He deals with the relations between Anglican, Methodist and Catholic missions but may not have adequately considered the fraught nature of the different expectations in each group. He deals judiciously with difficulties relating to inappropriate moral lapses by Kendall, Yates and others and alludes to the tensions people coped with in establishing communities in the bush.

The strength of his work lies in his assiduous reading of the correspondence and reports between missionaries and their sending agencies – the CMS, the MMS and the Marist order in Paris. But the writer gives me less confidence that he has an adequate grasp of the socio-cultural context in New Zealand, within which the missions operated. He also shows both linguistic and geographic insecurity that does not enhance his work. (My favourites are the mis-spelling of Te Whero Whero, and various odd adjectival forms of Māori  places.) My evaluation is that the work is ‘worthy’ rather than ‘insightful.’

My first question relates to the way he interprets his primary source documents. The question is: who were these reports written for and what did they expect to hear? How far were they written to accommodate European attitudes and expectations which may or may not reflect the situation on the ground? To what extent could the recipients grasp what was happening in the encounter between the missionaries and the people of the land? I suspect that a healthy suspicion of what was being written is called for.

Secondly, I am interested to know what the effective points of contact were within which the Gospel was able to be shared. What was being offered and what was really being heard? Yates draws attention to the insights into local society and practices that the more insightful missionaries observed which were essential to good understanding and communication. I am interested in the differences the Gospel made in how people lived.

Thirdly, I would like to know the tenets of the Gospel that were in the forefront of missionary proclamation, what was heard and the degree to which it was appropriated and internalised. These people had very limited access to resources. Each mission had its catechism and tradition of teaching in books, like Wesley’s Forty Four Sermons or Pearson on the Creed, but few resources beyond these basic texts. All taught through methods of catechesis but in each case the content would be culturally alien to their hearers. There is the further question of the pedagogical value of catechesis as an educational tool.

Coupled with this is the role of worship in expanding the mission. Large groups are reported as gathering to worship. What were they doing? How far was worship another expression of traditional spirituality and how far an imposed foreign structure? What was going on?

The way in which missionary families lived within the host communities is crucial. The fact that many lived with mutual respect and good will and were trusted is a mark of the practical wisdom many brought to their service. I suspect that their impact was primarily experiential as they lived out the Gospel in community in the tradition of nineteenth century romantic sensibility.

A further question relates to extending the missions. One would like to know where the concentrations of population were that led to establishing stations in what are now oddly inaccessible places. Yates did this in discussing siting the initial station at Rangihoua because of the protection Ruatara was able to offer. I would like it more widely considered.

The overarching question is: what did the local people hear and what did they make their own? To what extent was the Gospel indigenised and internalised? This question is crucial and finds its high point in the reception of the Treaty of Waitangi itself. The dominant narrative on that occasion utilised the thought forms and cultural images of nineteenth-century evangelical Christianity on issues of covenant and promise, rule and governance, responsibility and citizenship, the rule of law and the place of land. The Treaty could be ratified in many places because those interpreting the terms of the Treaty were trusted in their communities. Like the wider transmission of the Gospel, the Treaty was reinterpreted in local cultural terms in order to be received and accepted.

While there is much of interest in Mr Yates’ book, it is written from the perspective of a disengaged observer. Years ago, Archbishop Appleton commented that if he were to have his time as a missionary in Burma over again, he would don a saffron robe and sit and listen for seven years before he began to share the good news of the Gospel. I suspect that more engaged listening would have improved this present study.

Remembering 11 September

cfd398c0-51c1-4083-87d9-744786ca8804A confession: I can be a bit of a geek when it comes to following those ‘On this day’ sites. And, in an effort to demonstrate that geeks can be good lovers, I thought I’d share some of my geek-love about important events on this day in recent history:

1226: The Roman church’s practice of the public adoration of the Blessed Sacrament outside of Mass spreads from monasteries to parishes. The Catholics are starting to go all soft.

1297: Scottish patriot William Wallace defeated Edward I’s pommie army at Stirling Bridge. Apparently, it happened just like in the movie, except that it was in black and white because it was the olden days.

1814: The poms take another beating, this time at the hand of an American fleet in the Battle of Lake Champlain. ‘Those bloody colonies are simply not towing the line’, it was reported.

1863: Bushranger Captain Thunderbolt escapes from the supposedly escape-proof Cockatoo Island gaol. Three cheers for Captain Thunderbolt!

1885: D. H. Lawrence was born in Eastwood, England. Thank you Eastwood in England.

1893: The inaugural meeting of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. Seems like a whacko concept to me.

1900–2099: New Year’s Day in the Coptic and Ethiopian calendars. Happy new year to brothers and sisters, many of whom do life in massive travail.

1916: The first time that ‘Star Spangled Banner’ was sung at the beginning of a baseball game. Nationalism and sport – who would have thought? ‘And where is that band who so vauntingly swore/That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion/A home and a country, should leave us no more?’ Go the Red Sox!

1928: The first trans-Tasman flight, and it only took them 14 hours 25 minutes. Virgin Australia Airlines could learn a lot from Charles Kingsford Smith and Charles Ulm.

1962: The Beatles recorded their first singles, ‘Love Me Do’ and ‘P.S. I Love You’, at EMI studios in London.

1970: The final episode of ‘Get Smart’ aired on CBS-TV. So grateful for re-runs. I spent the first 8 years of my life talking to my shoes.

1973: Chilean President Salvador Allende, who was the world’s first democratically-elected Marxist head of state, died in a violent CIA-backed military coup.

1974: ‘Little House On The Prairie’ made its television debut. Tragic but true.

1977: Steven Biko died in police custody. Tragic but true.

1977: David Bowie and Bing Crosby recorded a duet version of ‘The Little Drummer Boy’. This is not looking good for music, folks. The next decade could be a real disaster on the pop music front.

1997: The Scots, the Lord’s beloved, voted to create their own Parliament after 290 years of union with the poms. Now finish the job boys!

2000: The beginning of the S11 protests against the World Economic Forum’s meetings in Melbourne.

2013: Jason had a bowl of dahl and a very large mug of coffee for breakfast. Ambrie had a bowl of muesli and a big cup of milk. Father and daughter are both doing well.

Jobs for historians? – yeah right!

Scott, Great moments in New Zealand history

… that’s what I thought, but it seems that the Waitangi Tribunal, a permanent commission of inquiry that researches and reports on claims submitted by Māori under the Treaty of Waitangi Act 1975, is serious about seeking to appoint two historians and one senior historian.

  • Information on the historian positions, including the job description and application form and process, is available here.  Applications close 19 July.
  • Information on the senior historian position, including the job description and application form and process, is available here.  Applications close 10 July.

Should you require any further information, please email Jonathan West.

Yanks and Kiwis

In his recent book Fairness and Freedom: A History of Two Open Societies – New Zealand and the United States – which I’m yet to read (a fact which doesn’t always give me reason to pause from offering comment) – David Hackett Fischer observes that whereas public discourse and public policy in America is dominated by the rhetoric of freedom and liberty, here in New Zealand the same are organised around the principles of fairness and social justice. Throwing Australia into this mix would make a fascinating study and, I think, challenge some of Fischer’s conclusions. Still, Fischer’s sounds like an attractive thesis (nicely summarised in this article), and I look forward to checking out the book. (Just as good, however, might be reading a review of the book by American ex-pat Kim Fabricius.)

Around: ‘And I am dumb to tell a weather’s wind/How time has ticked a heaven round the stars’

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.

The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction
of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying
that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted,
knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation
in realizing that. This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well. It may be incomplete,
but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference
between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.



2010: ‘It was the best of times …’

‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only’. – Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities.

Best books







Best albums

1. Officium Novum by Jan Garbarek & The Hilliard Ensemble.
2. The Age of Miracles by Mary-Chapin Carpenter.
3. Foundling by David Gray.
4. Scratch My Back by Peter Gabriel.
5. Sacrificium by Cecilia Bartoli.
6. Women and Country by Jakob Dylan.
7. 100 Miles From Memphis by Sheryl Crow.
8. Great and Small by Butterflyfish.
9. Downtown Church by Patty Griffin.
10. No Better Than This by John Mellencamp.

Honorable mentions: All Delighted People by Sufjan Stevens; The Age of Adz by Sufjan Stevens; Leave Your Sleep by Natalie Merchant; Go by Jónsi; April Uprising by The John Butler Trio; The Promise by Bruce Springsteen; The Astounding Eyes of Rita by Anouar Brahem; American VI: Aint No Grave by Johnny Cash; San Patricio by The Chieftains & Ry Cooder; In Person & On Stage by John Prine; How I Learned to See in the Dark by Chris Pureka.

Best films

1. How I Ended This Summer
2. Winter’s Bone
3. Abandoned
4. The Infidel
5. Shutter Island
6. Boy

Overrated films

Worst films

Best TV shows

1. An Idiot Abroad (Series 1)
2. Rev

Some Personal Highlights

‘Joy is the serious business of Heaven’

This morning I was at St Margaret’s in Frankton (part of the Wakatipu Community parish) where I met some wonderful folk, resisted going fishing, and preached on Luke 15:1–10. The sermon was partly inspired by these words on joy by CS Lewis, and those of Karl Barth on the miracle of the love of God:

‘I do not think that the life of Heaven bears any analogy to play or dance in respect of frivolity. I do think that while we are in this ‘valley of tears,’ cursed with labour, hemmed round with necessities, tripped up with frustrations, doomed to perpetual plannings, puzzlings, and anxieties, certain qualities that must belong to the celestial condition have no chance to get through, can project no image of themselves, except in activities which, for us here and now, are frivolous. For surely we must suppose the life of the blessed to be an end in itself, indeed The End: to be utterly spontaneous; to be the complete reconciliation of boundless freedom with order – with the most delicately adjusted, supple, intricate, and beautiful order? How can you find any image of this in the ‘serious’ activities either of our natural or of our (present) spiritual life? – either in our precarious and heart-broken affections or in the Way which is always, in some degree, a via crucis?: No, Malcolm. It is only in our ‘hours-off,’ only in our moments of permitted festivity, that we find an analogy. Dance and game are frivolous, unimportant down here; for ‘down here’ is not their natural place. Here, they are a moment’s rest from the life we were placed here to live. But in this world everything is upside down. That which, if it could be prolonged here, would be a truancy, is likest that which in a better country is the End of ends. Joy is the serious business of Heaven’. – CS Lewis, Prayer: Letters to Malcolm (London: Collins, 1977), 94–5.

‘God’s loving is concerned with a seeking and creation of fellowship without any reference to an existing aptitude or worthiness on the part of the loved. God’s love is not merely not conditioned by any reciprocity of love. It is also not conditioned by any worthiness to be loved on the part of the loved, by any existing capacity for union or fellowship on his side … The love of God always throws a bridge over a crevasse. It is always the light shining out of darkness. In His revelation it seeks and creates fellowship where there is no fellowship and no capacity for it, where the situation concerns a being which is quite different from God, a creature and therefore alien, a sinful creature and therefore hostile. It is this alien and hostile other that God loves … This does not mean that we can call the love of God a blind love. But what He sees when He loves is that which is altogether distinct from Himself, and as such lost in itself, and without Him abandoned to death. That He throws a bridge out from Himself to this abandoned one, that He is light in the darkness, is the miracle of the almighty love of God’. – Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II.1 (ed. G.W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance; trans. T.H.L. Parker, et al.; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1957), 278.

Here’s how I concluded:

If these two parables teach us anything at all about repentance, it is that the whole of our life is ‘finally and forever out of our hands and that if we ever live again, our life will be entirely the gift of some gracious other’ [Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of Grace, 39]. The Gospel is the announcement that God finds us not in the garden of improvement but in the desert of death. It’s precisely from death that we are brought home. And these parables are about coming home. They speak to us about the nature of lostness, and about the necessity of experiencing lostness if we are to experience homecoming. ‘Weary or bitter or bewildered as we may be, God is faithful, He lets us wander so we will know what it means to come home’ [Marilynne Robinson, Home, 102]. So they teach us something about the nature of God.

They also give us a hint … of what history is about: that history is the time that God creates in order to find and to restore the lost. And, finally, these parables give us a hint about how that time will end, offering us every hope to believe that our stories do not end at the grave. Even hell is no obstacle, for this is a God who, in Jesus Christ, comes not only into the far country in search of us, but who also descends into the very depths of hell in order to carry us home. This is the God of relentless grace – the Hound of Heaven – and it is he and not death or any human decision who will decide how history ends. This is what it means to call God the judge of the living and the dead. Like the good shepherd in Ezekiel 34 who searches for the lost and rescues them from all the places where they are scattered, Jesus’ work is not done until all come home. He keeps seeking the lost, even in the grave. He seeks those who have refused his love. He seeks those who have abandoned his love. He seeks those who have never known of his love. He seeks those for whom life has ended prematurely. In Christ, there is no such thing as empty time, or ‘dead’ time, for all time is filled with Christ’s lordship over the living and the dead, and filled with experience of the Spirit who is the giver of life …

And here in Luke 15 we are given a picture of the nature of God, an insight into the purpose of history, and, I believe, a glimpse of how history ends, of how your life ends and my life ends – of how the lives of those we love and of those who have made life hell for us, will end – with celebration, with a banquet, with the extravagant joy with which God welcomes the found and eats with them, … with homecoming.

Stretching the Zonules: 100 years ago today, and more recent exploits

‘The question of providing religious services for summer holiday-makers in the country was before the Dunedin Presbytery at its meeting yesterday in relation, particularly, to the growing popularity of Warrington and contiguous seaside resorts.

A report submitted recommended that a tent be procured at Warrington, but this proposal did not seem to find general favour although the point has not been settled, the matter having been referred to a small committee.

The Rev. J. Chisholm said it seemed to him that more attention should be given to these seaside resorts in the future.

The churches were almost empty for a few weeks in the year, and unless more attention were paid to the young people they would form habits which would doubtless be confirmed, and that would be to the injury of their church.

The Rev. R. Fairmaid brought the matter nearer home than the northern coast by referring to Broad Bay and the Peninsula.

A young man had told him that a kind of pagan life was lived thereby the young people who gathered for week ends.

This was a deplorable condition from the moral point of view, and, so far as he understood, there was no service provided by their people in these quarters.

The committee appointed could perhaps attend to this matter, too.

It was pointed out by the Rev. W. Scorgie, in concluding the discussion, that there was a Methodist Church at Broad Bay and a Presbyterian Church at Portobello’.

[First published in the Otago Daily Times on 7 September 1910. Reprinted in today’s ODT]

Also, there’s some good reading around the traps at the moment:

  • William Cavanaugh on Christopher Hitchens and the myth of religious violence.
  • Matthew Bruce reviews Matthias Gockel’s Barth and Schleiermacher on the Doctrine of Election. [BTW: my own review of this book is available here].
  • Richard L. Floyd shares an appreciation of Donald Bloesch.
  • Kim Fabricius shares a wonderful Call to Worship.
  • Steve Biddulph on fatherhood.
  • Robert Fisk on ‘honour’ killings and on the pain of satisfying family ‘honour’.
  • Ben Myers shares a note on misreading.
  • Robin Parry (shamelessly) plugs a forthcoming book on universalism: “All Shall Be Well”: Explorations in Universalism and Christian Theology, from Origen to Moltmann.
  • Luther is still bugging the locals.
  • Simon Holt shares a nice prayer from Ken Thompson about pigeon holes, compartments, and other places.
  • And Ken MacLeod offers a brilliant solution for distracted writers: ‘One of the major problems for writers is that the machine we use to write is connected to the biggest engine of distraction ever invented. One can always disconnect, of course – there’s even software that locks out the internet and email for selected periods – or use a separate, isolated computer, but I think something more elegant as well as radical is needed. What I’m thinking of is some purely mechanical device, that took the basic QWERTY keyboard with Shift and Return keys and so on, but with each key attached to an arrangement of levers connected to a physical representation of the given letter or punctuation mark. These in turn would strike through some ink-delivery system – perhaps, though I’m reaching a bit here, a sort of tape of cloth mounted on reels – onto separate sheets of paper, fed through some kind of rubber roller (similar to that on a printer) one by one. The Return key would have to be replaced by a manual device, to literally ‘return’ the roller at the end of each line. Tedious, but most writers could do with more exercise anyway. Corrections and changes would be awkward, it’s true, but a glance at any word processor programme gives the answer: the completed sheets could be, physically, cut and pasted’.

BTW: I haven’t abandoned my series on the cost and grace of parish ministry. If all goes to plan, I’ll be back posting on it this week.

Listening to the tradition, thinking in centuries

As part of my contribution to Ben Myers’ hunt for some appropriate reading for a post-grad seminar on the ‘spirituality of theology’, I suggested that he ‘shoot for something outside of the past century’. Here’s part of the reason why:

‘When we learn to listen to the tradition faithfully, not assuming that we already know what we shall hear, but instead allowing earlier voices their own integrity, we will inevitably be surprised by the strangeness of much what is said. At that point we will be faced with a choice: we might take the modern way of patronising earlier voices by assigning them to their “place in history”, and so pretending that they have nothing to say to us; or we might believe that to listen to these voices in all their strangeness, and to regard their positions as serious, and live, options is actually a theological imperative. Perhaps the most two obvious areas where this will be true are sexual ethics and biblical interpretation …’. – Steve R. Holmes, Listening to the Past: The Place of Tradition in Theology (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2002), 86.

Introducing the Introducing Series

Regular readers of this blog have no doubt noticed my interest in Church history. While the seed for this interest was planted decades ago, it has sprouted more rapidly in recent years as I have focused my attention on one of Church history’s outstanding figures, PT Forsyth. One of the real joys of doing a PhD is being introduced to so many new names and so much unfamiliar literature. For me, this has principally been Victorian/Edwardian nonconformist theologians from Britain.

Having enjoyed these introductions so much, I thought it might be a good idea to (from time to time) share some biographical material on, and quotes from, various theologians that I come across that are of particular interest. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography will be a principal source. The series will include posts on:

(If there’s a biography that you’d particularly like to see included, let me know … and why).

Note: Additional dictionary content from The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography can be obtained free in the UK from public libraries thanks to a national deal with the MLA.

Aboriginal Religions in Australia

The upcoming issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion includes a review by Diane Bell (University of Adelaide) of the book Aboriginal Religions in Australia: An Anthology of Recent Writings, edited by Max Charlesworth, Francoise Dussart, and Howard Morphy (Ashgate, 2005).

Bell notes that the contributors to this volumes are ‘predominantly non-Indigenous anthropologists and well-established ones at that’. However, not a few new strands in the study of Aboriginal religion are unrepresented in the book. Bell states that she ‘would like to see more about the intertwining of new age beliefs and practices, eco-tourism, new religious movements, and the emergence of distinctive Aboriginal theologies—some of which have a strong social justice core and others of a decidedly evangelical nature’.

Bell identifies Fiona Magowan’s essay ‘Faith and Fear in Aboriginal Christianity’ (pp. 279–295) as ‘an excellent account of the Yolngu from Galiwin’ku in northeast Arnhem Land, and Ian McIntosh’s ‘Islam and Australia’s Aborigines’ (pp. 297–318), also on the Yolgnu, as ‘a fine example of how outside influences can be absorbed’, but she says we also need to hear from people in rural and urban settings. Bell, who lives in the Ngarrindjeri territory in the southeast of Australia, would have liked to see more teasing out of how Aboriginal religion practiced in the inner cities,’ in the more densely settled south’. ‘What role, for instance, do mainstream churches, evangelical, and fundamentalist religions play in the lives of disaffected youth?’

No anthology – by definition – can possibly traverse any given field fully. Bell criticises this anthology with being ‘too vast’. She concludes: ‘Choices must be made. In my view, the choices made regarding the“recent writings” for this anthology give priority to old concerns. There is much that is new and challenging for scholars of religion, much that is relevant as to how we live our lives in the twenty-first century. The potential audiences for writing on religion are wide ranging. This anthology was an opportunity to address readers beyond the academy. Instead the editors have stayed very much within the lines’.

You can read the whole review here.