Michael Leunig

An interview with Michael Leunig

Well, it’s not very often at all that one hears anything listen-worthy on New Zealand radio, but when such rare occurrences do take place, they almost inevitably do so on Radio New Zealand. This was the case yesterday morning when Kathryn Ryan interviewed the delightful Michael Leunig on the Nine to Noon programme. You can listen to the interview here.

And while I’m mentioning St Michael, here are two of his most recent works:

Life is porous - 12 April 2014

A Biblical Thing - 16 April 2014


‘Religious Language under Pressure’: Rowan Williams’ Edward Schillebeeckx Lecture

duck rabbit illusionOn 13 December last year, Rowan Williams was at the Radboud University in Nijmegen to deliver the Edward Schillebeeckx lecture, an event organised by the Soeterbeeck Programme and the journal Tijdschrift voor Theologie. In what was a very stimulating lecture – are Williams’s lectures ever otherwise! – Williams draws inspiration from Michael Leunig, Cornelius Ernst, Thomas Aquinas, Victor Preller, Buddhist meditation practices, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and, of course, Edward Schillebeeckx.

Picking up on the theme of the lecture, Williams argued that ‘Our language becomes “religious” when it is most under pressure; when what it does, says, or expresses, or embodies, is a kind of letting go under the pressure of recognising that we have to change the discourse, that the questions no longer work. We let go and ask – ask rather than answer! – “Are there other ways of speaking or seeing or being?”‘

And he unpacks five implications:

1. Language is not just ‘stimulus and response’, a system of cause and effect. We can’t predict or control speech or the way we understand it. Language is risky and unpredictable.
2. Language necessarily has an unfinished/unclosed character about it. There is always something more to be said. One implication of this is that repetition is not really possible.
3. Language is something one does with one’s body. Speech is a bodily event, an act which takes place from a particular location.
4. We place our language under pressure so that we can think better, think more deeply, discover something new; so that we can move out of the frame we started with.
5. Silence in our speech is significant. We expect silence to do some work for us. In other words, silence is never empty. It’s not even silent.

He concludes with these words:

Our religious language is no more than our ordinary language – a simple set of descriptions. We do not look out from the castle of our brain and label that object called ‘God’. On the contrary, when we believe we have found, for the moment, an adequate way of talking about God – a doctrinal formulation, an image, a scriptural text – we need to remind ourselves of exactly what it is we are talking about; which is, supremely, the uncontrollable, the unconditioned. Like the Buddhist, faced with what comes at the far end of meditation, we have to say there are no words that are going to hold this. However satisfactory what I have said so far may appear, I have to recognise what it doesn’t say. I have to put my religious language, so to speak, under the judgement of a God who can’t be exhaustively and finally spoken of. I have to allow my religious speaking to move in and out of silence for contemplation. To put it another way: I have to put my religious language under pressure; I have to make sure that the language of my faith, my creed, my doctrine, is not left to sit complacently without that tightening of the grip of mystery on it which prevents it from being authoritarian, or oppressive; which respects that ‘openness’ (once again to use Father Schillebeeckx’s word), [which] prevents that openness surviving.

And one of the paradoxes about this, a paradox well worth reflecting on, is that instead of this meaning that our religious language is ‘a shot at the truth which makes no great claim to tell us, truthfully, something about God’, the contrary is true: the more our religious language shows that it is under pressure – under scrutiny, under judgement – the more we recognise that what we have said may be true but not adequate, the more we speak truthfully about God, the more we declare and show what God is, or who God is.

Some people speak as though a tentative approach to the language of our doctrine, our creed, our liturgy, will somehow resign all claims to truth, or revelation, or whatever, somehow blur the clear boundaries of the faith we have received. But I don’t believe that. When I say the creed, I do so without any reservation, but I try to do so without any complacency. When I make the declarations I make in the creed – about God, about the Incarnation, about the last things – I accept that these are the best words I can find to carry what needs to be carried, and precisely because of that they remain something that falls short of what is really there. And in that recognition that they fall short, and in the continuous self-examination – [and the] self-questioning that comes with that – I show that God is more than just the content of my mind, or the collective content of human minds, or a construct of the imagination.

If I am showing that it is difficult to talk about God, I am showing something true about God. Let me just repeat that because I do think it’s crucial: If I am showing that it is difficult to talk about God, I am showing what is true about God. And those who speak easily, glibly, fluently about God, may be less truthful because there is less of that openness to the infinite, unconditioned, mystery of the God we speak of. That sense of infinite, unconditioned mystery surrounding our words and our actions, soaking through the practice of our faith, spilling over in different ways into the events and exchanges of the world; that sense of where we stand, how we speak, in the presence of the difficult God was, I believe, something profoundly close to the heart of Edward Schillebeeckx’s theology. What I have shared with you this evening owes a great deal to the inspiration of a theologian who was not afraid to say ‘If it is difficult to speak God, that’s because that is the truthful way to speak of God.

Theologians need, I believe, not to be afraid of recognising that creative, essential, difficulty as the way of finding truthfulness and, perhaps, as one way of recovering that natural theology faithful to human experience which Edward Schillebeeckx shared with us, and still does.

[HT: Thanks to Chris Green for drawing my attention to this lecture. Chris was particularly enamoured by the section around the 01:01:00 mark; i.e., with the section which I have typed up.]

Prophet Michael (Leunig) on various things

Sad times. They are sad times when a people’s highest interests are decided by methods characterised by the crude arbitrament of numbers, by methods which seek to silence those who would speak unwelcome words, and by methods which seek to render martyrdom inexplicable. In such times, I am exceedingly grateful for all those who shy not away from the madness. One such all-too-rare character is Michael Leunig, whose moral compass, hopeful outlook, ability to laugh at turkeys, and critical courage is exemplified in his recent cartoons published in The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald, newspapers to which Leunig is a regular contributor:


15 December, 2013


28 December, 2013


4 January, 2014


18 January, 2014


25 January, 2014


1 February, 2014


5 February, 2014


7 February, 2014


8 February, 2014


12 February, 2014


14 February, 2014


15 February, 2014

Leunig 'Letters'cartoon for Wednesday 19th February 201419 February, 2014

Saturday with Leunig (plus, as a bonus, a theology of deodorant)

Anyway, amid the stories in The Age today about how Scott Morrison has done the seemingly impossible and discovered a new level of low, about why we should consider covering up the cameras on our smartphones and other devices, about how much charities spend on fund-raising, about Grumpy Cat, about Harry Kewell’s ankle, and about how today is the day for me to create the ideal future I’ve envisioned, through sheer force of will!, because the universe supports that kind of intensity right now, there was this gem from Michael Leunig:

Some people

And while I’m drawing attention to things worthwhile (and otherwise), one other serious gem worth checking out is Scott Stephens’ fantastic piece (over at the ABC’s Religion and Ethics site) on Hirschhorn, human bodies, icons and the body of Christ; or, to put it otherwise, What would a theology of deodorant look like?

[Image source: The Age]

November stations …




Real Men

October stations …



Link love

Leunig love

Leunig-iPad-The Lost Art

Leunig - Words for mystery

[Source: The Age]

Leunig on Cirque Canberra

Michael Leunig‘s latest three cartoons are a fitting commentary on Cirque* Canberra:



Travel Expenses

Plus, one from a few weeks earlier:


* There is, of course, another  and equally truthful  way of thinking about the image of the circus. I think, for example, of William Stringfellow‘s reflections on the circus as an event of the eschaton. Picking up the image in the wake of Ingmar Berman and Georges Rouault, Stringfellow propose that we recognise circuses as parables of the kingdom and, as such, as parodies of the world as it is. I suspect that Leunig would like that image too.

Leunig, Hunsinger and Hauerwas on ‘just war’ theory

As the US continues to beat its war drums in the Middle East, it’s a good time to think again about the so-called ‘just war’ theory. So, I draw attention to three pieces – from Michael Leunig, from George Hunsinger and from Stanley Hauerwas.

So, Leunig:

Just war

And in a recent piece published in Commonweal Magazine, Hunsinger argues that ‘a defensible case for the attack on Syria would have to satisfy traditional “just war” standards. In its modern form the just-war tradition (jus ad bellum) involves at least four primary elements: just cause, legitimate authority, last resort, and reasonable chance of success. If these criteria remain unmet, the recourse to war is unjustified’. In Hunsinger’s view, the proposed attack on Syria meets none of these standards.

And here, Hauerwas argues that the real realists are not the just-war advocates anyway, but the pacifists. Moreover, he contends that ‘the lack of realism about realism by American just war advocates has everything to do with their being American’. ‘In particular’, he suggests, ‘American advocates of just war seem to presume that democratic societies place an inherent limit on war that more authoritarian societies are unable to do. While such a view is quite understandable, I would argue that democratic society – at least, the American version – is unable to set limits on war because it is democratic. Put even more strongly, for Americans war is a necessity to sustain our belief that we are worthy to be recipients of the sacrifices made on our behalf in past wars. Americans are a people born of and in war, and only war can sustain our belief that we are a people set apart’. Such democracies, Hauerwas believes, ‘by their very nature seem to require that wars be fought in the name of ideals that make war self-justifying’. And, characteristically, Hauerwas concludes his piece with a reflection on the relationship between war, christology and ecclesiology:

Pacifists are realists. Indeed, we have no reason to deny that the “realism” associated with Augustine, Luther and Niebuhr has much to teach us about how the world works. But that is why we do not trust those who would have us make sacrifices in the name of preserving a world at war. We believe a sacrifice has been made that has brought an end to the sacrifice of war.

Augustine and Luther thought Christians might go to war because they assumed a church existed that provided an alternative to the sacrificial system war always threatens to become. When Christians no longer believe that Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient for the salvation of the world, we will find other forms of sacrificial behaviours that are as compelling as they are idolatrous. In the process, Christians confuse the sacrifice of war with the sacrifice of Christ.

If a people does not exist that continually makes Christ present in the world, war will always threaten to become a sacrificial system. War is a counter church. War is the most determinative moral experience many people have.

That is why Christian realism requires the disavowal of war. Christians do not disavow war because it is often so horrible, but because war, in spite of its horror – or perhaps because it is so horrible – can be so morally compelling. That is why the church does not have an alternative to war. The church is the alternative to war. When Christians lose that reality – that is, the reality of the church as an alternative to the world’s reality – we abandon the world to the unreality of war.

For what it’s worth, whenever I happen across Christians defending just-war theory to justify their participation in the state’s various machineries of cross-border violence (which, for the record, is not what I think Hunsinger is doing), I’m reminded of another George – George Bernard Shaw – and his challenge to (hypocritical) church leaders:

They have turned their churches into recruiting stations and their vestries into munitions workshops. But it has never occurred to them to take off their black coats and say quite simply, ‘I find in the hour of trial that the Sermon on the Mount is tosh, and that I am not a Christian. I apologise for all the unpatriotic nonsense I have been preaching all the years. Have the goodness to give me a revolver and a commission in a regiment which has for its chaplain a priest of the god Mars: my God.’ Not a bit of it. They have stuck to their livings and served Mars in the name of Christ, to the scandal of all religious mankind.

‘Carnival of the Animals’, by Michael Leunig

When human beings began to walk
Upon hind legs and learned to talk
And say, “We are no longer creatures …”
They covered up their natural features
And set about becoming clever –
Enough to ruin the earth forever.
And as sophistication grew
The world became a human zoo.
Where human types in many cages,
Sang their songs on little stages
Staring sadly through the bars
Towards the distant moon and stars.
So lend your ears and come with me
Into this weird menagerie.

Presidents and Prime Ministers are magnificent creatures;
They’re magnificent at making speeches.
Which tell us of our national glory
The stirring and redeeming story
That we are good and the others bad
That we are happy – the others sad
Then having said these wondrous things
Our leaders stand like queens and kings
So noble, truthful, just and wise.
That tears of gladness fill our eyes.
Until, upon election day
We vote and have them flushed away.

Now let’s imagine if we can
A fanfare for the common man:
Bright and bold and lyrical –
Perhaps that’s too satirical –
If we pause to contemplate
The common person’s current state
Considering the simple facts
Of how the modern person acts:
Running here, running there,
Agitation and despair,
Incurably Titanic –
The common man is manic.
The modern world in disarray.
It might be time to sit and pray
And let Camille Sain-Saens express
An anthem for this crazy mess:
For nothing could be truer.
Than this fanfare for the insecure.

The tourist runs away from home
And all the roads that lead to Rome
Are packed with speeding human ants
Wearing lightweight tourist pants
Catching buses, catching trains
Catching colds in aeroplanes
Hurtling to everywhere;
Through the streets and through the air
Faster faster, more and more.
Through another hotel door
Photograph it, see it all
See another Chinese wall
One more continental shelf.
Tourist you should see yourself.

The old, old man is a weary beast;
He pulled the plough, he pulled the cart
Through the famine and the feast;
It broke his back, it broke his heart
But it did not break the magic spell
That gave him wings to drift and fly
With music that he loved so well
To sweethearts floating in the sky.

6. ME
The me slowly emerges
And when it does it’s splendid;
Delightful inner urges
All beautifully extended.
The me just simply must
Unto itself be true
And absolutely thrust
Its life into the blue.
The me is full and rounded
And ripe and sweet and free.
It’s great to be surrounded
By a lovely peaceful me.


Don’t fret too much for the Departed.
Even though they leave you broken hearted.
Have no fear
They WILL reappear
When you’re alone and unprepared
They will just turn up. Do not be scared.
Be still. Do not turn away;
There is something wise they have come to say
To you and to you alone;
Some plain and simple thing already known
They will touch you and say,
“It’s alright, everything will be OK”
Or something just like that, short and clear.
Then casually they will turn and softly disappear
Leaving you elated and in perfect peace
The meaning of life and death will then increase
And your love for the departed one will grow.
There is so much more you will get to know
About love that is unassailable.
So long as you make yourself available.

Jerks know all the lurks
Jerks get all the perks.
Nothing really irks
Like the murkiness of jerks.
Jerks know all your quirks
Jerks do all the smirks
Nothing really works
Like the murkiness of jerks.

The eccentric is a mysterious creature
Peculiar behaviour is its notable feature
Lost and alone in a world of conformity
Where oddness is seen as a dreadful deformity.
Yet, of all the creatures, the true non-conformist
Is often the brightest, the boldest and warmest.

The beloved brings intoxication – for a while.
Then some time later the beloved brings – a smile.
And later on the beloved brings a few concerns.
And later on the beloved brings a rash that burns.
And later on the beloved brings a sleepless night.
And then the beloved brings a dreadful fright.
And so the beloved brings us to our senses.
And that is where the greatest love commences.

Megalomaniacs want control
Because they do not trust the soul.
In every living situation
A megalomaniac seeks domination.
Megalomaniacs want their way
To make a better world they say;
To fix the breakages and cracks
Of other megalomaniacs.

The human child at a tender age
Is often placed into a cage
Where it is trained to join the cult
Of acting like a nice adult.
The nice adult then goes all sad
And starts to act a little mad
Until it turns completely wild
And liberates its inner child.
Childhood must be had when young
Something like when spring has sprung
Let the birds and angels sing
Childhood is the time of spring.

The strange naked lady is wonderfully plump–
So soft, so large and complete.
Magnificent bosom and fabulous rump
Just gliding along through the street.
Slowly and gracefully – light as a cloud
A faraway look in her eye
Humming a sweet little song to the crowd
And holding a rose to the sky
But why is she naked and where are her clothes
And what is her medical history?
She’s simply the lady that nobody knows:
A divine and miraculous mystery.

And so we come to the grand parade
Where all the sounds of joy are made
As we finally open every cage
And let the humans out to rage
And dance along with hands on hips;
To roll their heads and pout their lips;
Characters bright and characters shady;
The prime Minister shall dance with the Naked Lady,
The sad old man will be reconciled
With the beautiful truth of his inner child,
And sweet Palestinians with sweet Israelis
Will blow fanfares of peace on their ukuleles.
Then the humans creatures shall finally see.
That where there is love – THEY ARE FREE.

– Michael Leunig, Carnival of the Animals (Sydney: Macmillan, 2000), np.

On blood and guts, violence and death

I’ve been enjoying this delightful collection of short essays by the Melbourne-born poet, artist and cultural commentator Michael Leunig. Here’s a snippet from his essay ‘Blood and Guts, Violence and Death’:

“No nation can go to war without a sufficient reserve of hatred, cruelty and bloodlust politely concealed in its general population, and if our so-called Western democracies wanted their ‘war against terror’, then let them now at least see the graphic details of war’s sickening and hideous consequences.

The curse is, however, that it’s the children who are most defiled and blighted by such frightening imagery – and they had no part in it.

My years in the abattoir taught me that society denies its bloodlust and cruelty and imagines that such impulses appropriately belong to prehistoric barbarians, or ‘rough and uncouth men’. But I believe we now have the unique modern cruelty of the refined and educated Western man, the respected gentleman in the fine suit who has never much dirtied his hands or killed a living creature, never meditated upon a rotting corpse and never had his consciousness infected with the messy organic substances of violent death – yet who can sign with an elegant golden pen the document that unleashes the cowardly invasion and who can then go out to dine on claret and lamb cutlets.

The likes of these men abound in the halls of academia, the boardrooms and corridors of power, and the chicken-coop workstations of the media, where they have clamoured for war, for all sorts of ungodly and unfathomable reasons, without really knowing in their bones how it works – the business of violence and blood and guts.

They are primally inexperienced, unconnected and unwise. Their flesh has not been seared. Their  repressed death fascination and sly cruelty has not yet been transformed into reverence and understanding by initiation into things carnal and spiritual, by the actual sights and sounds of splattering blood and crunching bone, and the pitiful flailing and wailing of violent death – the very thing they would unleash upon others. Just one sordid street-fight or one helpless minute of aerial bombardment might redeem them. They lack the humbling erudition of the slaughterman, the paramedic and, no doubt, the soldier who has really been a soldier.

I dare say there’s something foul, creepy and disgraceful emerging in the character of corporate and political leadership in ‘Western civilisation’, and I sense it’s substantially the result of an insipid masculinity problem.

The insatiable need for heartless power and ruthless control is the telltale sign of an uninitiated man – the most irresponsible, incompetent and destructive force on earth.”

– Michael Leunig, The Lot: In Words (Camberwell: Penguin, 2008), 50–2.

We celebrate Spring’s returning …

Dear God,

We celebrate spring’s returning and the rejuvenation of the natural world. Let us be moved by this vast and gentle insistence that goodness shall return, that warmth and life shall succeed. Help us to understand our place in this miracle. Let us see that as a bird now builds its nest, bravely, with bits and piece, so we must build human faith. It is our simple duty; it is the highest art; it is our natural and vital role within the miracle of spring; the creation of faith.


– Michael Leunig, When I Talk to You: A Cartoonist Talks to God (Riverside: Andrews McMeel, 2006), np.