‘The Last Day’

jurek d. - Horizon

When the last day comes
A ploughman in Europe will look over his shoulder
And see the hard furrows of earth
Finally behind him, he will watch his shadow
Run back into his spine.

It will be morning
For the first time, and the long night
Will be seen for what it is,
A black flag trembling in the sunlight.
On the last day

Our stories will be rewritten
Each from the end,
And each will end the same;
You will hear the fields and rivers clap
And under the trees

Old bones
Will cover themselves with flesh;
Spears, bullets, will pluck themselves
From wounds already healed,
Women will clasp their sons as men

And men will look
Into their palms and find them empty;
There will be time
For us to say the right things at last,
To look into our enemy’s face

And see ourselves,
Forgiven now, before the books flower in flames,
The mirrors return our faces,
And everything is stripped from us,
Even our names.

– Kevin Hart, 2015 [Image: jurek d.]

Responding to the Anthropocene

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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.

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Maribyrnong River, Sunrise. 15 July 2017.

Free article on George Mackay Brown

George Mackay Brown 5.jpgSome readers of this blog may be interested to read my recent essay on the work of the Orcadian writer George Mackay Brown. The essay, which was published in Pacifica, is currently available to be downloaded freely, and can be accessed here, or via pdf here.

I had much pleasure writing this article, but reader beware when I suggest that its reading will be significantly enhanced if accompanied by a wee dram or two of Highland Park. Trust me.

‘Holiness in Victorian and Edwardian England’

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I was honoured to have been invited to contribute a little piece for a Festschrift being prepared for Professor Yolanda Dreyer, of the University of Pretoria. Papers for the Festschrift are being published in the online journal HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies.

My paper is titled ‘Holiness in Victorian and Edwardian England: Some Ecclesial Patterns and Theological Requisitions’. Its Abstract reads:

This essay begins by offering some observations about how holiness was comprehended and expressed in Victorian and Edwardian England. In addition to the ‘sensibility’ and ‘sentiment’ that characterised society, notions of holiness were shaped by, and developed in reaction to, dominant philosophical movements; notably, the Enlightenment and Romanticism. It then considers how these notions found varying religious expression in four Protestant traditions – the Oxford Movement, Calvinism, Wesleyanism, and the early Keswick movement. In juxtaposition to what was most often considered to be a negative expression of holiness associated primarily with anthropocentric and anthroposocial behaviour as evidenced in these traditions, the essay concludes by examining one – namely, P. T. Forsyth – whose voice called from within the ecclesial community for a radical requisition of holiness language as a fundamentally positive reality describing the divine life and divine activity. The relevance of a study of the Church’s understanding of holiness and how it sought to develop its doctrine while engaging with larger social and philosophical shifts endures with us still.

The paper can be accessed here.

When is political power legitimate?

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John Bale, ‘Revelation Chapter 13’, 1545

‘When is political authority legitimate? When does the state have a status and function that may be considered “ordained by God”? When are those who rule – emperors or presidents, parliaments or police – due honor, not out of fear, because they wield the sword and command the means to intimidate, dominate and coerce human beings, but as a matter of conscience?

These have not been abstract issues in the American context. The founding premises of the nation define legitimacy in government, both with respect to a rule considered so obnoxious to human life in society that it was to be resisted and overthrown (the Declaration of Independence), and, thereafter, with respect to the limitations upon political authority and the institutionalization of public accountability (the Constitution). Between the Declaration and the Constitution, political legitimacy concerns how political power is established and how such power is used. Incumbency in itself is not enough to validate any exercise of political authority.

Nor is the matter abstract nowadays. In the past decade the opposition, notably that of Christians, to the war and to the war enterprise in Southeast Asia has upheld the position that the illegal and unconstitutional conduct of the war renders incumbent political authority illegitimate. It is this very point that occasioned the witness of the Berrigan brothers in becoming fugitives at a time when they had been ordered to submit to imprisonment. To have surrendered to illegitimate authority voluntarily would have seemed to condone it. For the Berrigans, there could be no obedience to criminal power.

At a time when the President is reported to be frustrated and angry that his rule lacks credibility and that he does not receive automatic homage, it is edifying to recall that many who have all along opposed him and his regime – and also the Government of Lyndon Johnson – have not done so as weirdos, cowards, far-out radicals or malcontents. In truth, they have upheld the classic American view of political legitimacy. The very citizens President Nixon has been so desirous to watch and spy upon, defame and persecute, humiliate and ostracize, prosecute and punish have been those who have acted to redeem legitimacy in government so that political authority could be conscientiously honored (again) in this nation.

And, more than that, such persons have acted within the traditional doctrine of Romans 13. John Calvin’s comment could hardly be more emphatic or more immediately relevant to both the war and Watergate as manifestations of political illegitimacy:

Understand further, that powers are from God … because he has appointed them for the legitimate and just government of the world. For though tyrannies and unjust exercise of power, as they are full of disorder, are not an ordained government; yet the right of government is ordained by God for the well-being of mankind. As it is lawful to repel wars and to seek remedies for other evils, hence the Apostle [Paul] commands us willingly and cheerfully to respect and honor the right and authority of magistrates, as useful to men …

If that be the truth, for citizens who are biblical people, the way to expose illegitimate authority is to oppose the incumbent regime. In that case President Nixon may not invoke Romans 13 to indulge vanity, induce tribute, evade guilt or compound deceit; rather, he is consigned to suffer Romans 13 as a stunning and awesome rebuke – and as a fearful and timely warning’.

– Mr Stringfellow

‘Elegy from a Seaside Graveyard’, by John Stokes

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From ‘The Eden Set – coming on the coast suddenly’

… and this stone-picture’s Wayne, the Suicide
doing it his way: longest finger
cocked up from the earth
into the sealight fading.

Here the surfer, boy of the sea
still suckled by his mother feeling
his salt mouth, his sighing
over the tablet gravestone of the waves.

Here the incongruous Calvinist whalers
moaning with their predestinations:
born in sin, living to lament
relieving themselves in death

and here the mother lover, with her child
still moving, on top and hung
in the harness, the smash cut
gently into the mind at twilight

and Brad, who knew Sherryl
in the fullest biblical sense
and Nathanial, who knew the kill
and the smell and ways of the mulloway.

These deaths are so Australian
and yet the same. They are sung
in the tongue of the water, the hiss
of the sand-grains rubbing

one with another, and another
and another, under bellbirds
sounding their death knells
into the sealight fading.

So leave the dead ones to it
– they are, after all, forever –
love them, leave them, go
pausing once, at some corner

(you will know when)
so the car-hoon
when he misses you by a nail
gives you the finger!

Resurrect your breath.

Drive on.

– published in Meanjin 66–67, no. 4–1 (2008), 22–23.

‘Habits as Signs: Some Reflections on the Ethical Shape of Christian Community’

The latest issue of the International Journal of Practical Theology includes a little essay I wrote titled ‘Habits as Signs: Some Reflections on the Ethical Shape of Christian Community’.

[Image: ‘Irregularities of Discernment’, by theflickerees. Source]

On religion (and theological education) in Australia

Australian religion

Another little thought provoker from an old edition of Meanjin, this time from around 40 years ago (although most of it could have been written last week, or next week):

Unlike those in Britain, Europe or America, our universities have never taken the study of religious thought seriously (Melbourne in fact explicitly excluded Divinity in 1890), and there are no great theological colleges in Australia; until recently the churches imported rather than bred their theologians. The Anglicans and the Romans in particular have had a fractured system of small-time colleges, each with its own emphasis, which are only now being rationalised; all theological colleges are heavily oriented towards the vocational training of clergy, rather than the intellectual critique of the church’s language about God. The last few years have seen the beginnings of substantial theological scholarship and discussion, but each publication is overwhelmingly a contribution to a debate centred in Europe. It may be objected that Australian religion is vastly wider than what goes on in theological colleges, and so it is. But I submit that the failure so far to spawn a tradition of self-sustaining theological scholarship and debate tells us something significant about Australian religion.

There is a second point here as well. Religion in Australia has been, and to a large extent is still, very derivative. The Irish consciousness of the Catholics needs no elaboration, and has caused considerable difficulties to continental Catholics who have come here in the past 30 years; the Anglicans are still in the process of dropping the name ‘Church of England’; Scottish accents have always commanded especial respect in Presbyterian Assemblies. More recently, the ‘evangelical’ Protestants have turned to America to import business models and techniques.

From the early days of the colony, there were groups – the emancipists, the larrikins, the battlers – who thought of themselves as Australians and scorned the ‘new chums’. But these were precisely the groups who were little affected by religion, whether in the formal guise of the churches or through the missions of the evangelists. This striking disjunction is marvellously illustrated by the uncultivated youth in a magistrate’s court about 1840 who, when asked his religion, replied ‘I am a Native’. The foreignness of the Australian Churches, whatever their denominational allegiance, was indeed foreshadowed in the First Fleet; the Church arrived here ‘on the wrong side’, in the presence of an officially-appointed chaplain.

Nationalistic self-identity had, therefore, little effect on religious consciousness: Australia has not even produced its own analogues of the off-beat American sects. All the ‘way-out’ religious groups appearing here with significant impact have been imported. And, of course, in this very paper I have had to take ‘Australian religion’ with the implicit gloss ‘white’: the mythological structure of the Aboriginal ‘dreaming’ has contributed nothing to white religious thought here, however much it has intrigued anthropologists. There has been remarkably little indigenisation.

The picture I am painting may change. In the last year or so one can detect what might prove to be the first stirrings of a genuinely contextual articulation of an Australian religious outlook. (It will be interesting to see whether the new Uniting Church of Australia inaugurated in July can rise to the challenge.) More characteristic has been the short life of Charles Strong’s Australian Church, with its simple Unitarianism, which never really got off the ground.

For the moment, the essentially derivative nature of Australian religion remains more striking. The way post-war migrants have brought their own churches with them, be they Gereformeerdekerk or Serbian Orthodox, has only accentuated this fact. And if we add to that the manner in which the population from the beginning, even if mainly falling under the general classification ‘British’, owned different national and ecclesiastical allegiances with none predominant, then it follows that the Australian church scene is characteristically sectarian ….

The sectarianism of Australian religious life has, of course, had an enormous influence on social and political affairs. The centralised and bureaucratic shape of our education systems was the direct outcome of bitter religious rivalry and distrust last century; State aid for church schools remained the principal issue of religious-political interaction until the Whitlam government established the Schools Commission to defuse the issue.

More generally, the role of the churches in Australian political life has been to reinforce our pervasive conservatism. This role has been accomplished in two ways: precisely by emphasising their derivativeness, the churches have provided symbols of famililiar security in a strange, unsettling environment, and by underpinning a vague liberal-humanism the churches have provided a stable value-system within which personal and political questions can be discussed without serious clash between church and state …. Yet while Christianity has served this conservative role in these ways, it has made no clear doctrinal contribution to the sense of national identity of the kind we noted in America. Insofar as that identity has been articulated in terms of the Anzac tradition, its religious motifs are more reminiscent of a Mithraic blood sacrifice of immortal youth than of the Cross ….

This brings me to the next point: there are regional differences which talk about Australian religion should not obscure. South Australia … has a different denominational mix from the national average; Methodists, Congregationalists and Lutherans have been more numerous there. But denominations aside, there is a striking difference between Sydney and Melbourne right across the religious board. Let me remind you of some facts. It was in Melbourne that the Catholic National Civic Council had its base and Santamaria’s groupers were most influential. It is in Melbourne that the predominantly Anglican Brotherhood of St. Laurence operates. It was in N. S. W. that the Presbyterian Church split right down the middle over church Union. Melbourne Baptists tend to look to English Baptists for guidance [ed. – If anyone knows of such a gang, then do please introduce me]; Sydney Baptists to American Southern Baptists. Melbourne has its College of Divinity in which Presbyterians, Methodists, Congregationalists, Anglicans and Jesuits now work closely together …. Religious life in Melbourne has always been more urbane, more ecumenical, more catholic in its social vision, more Tory in its conservatism, whereas Sydney has been more assertive, more sectarian-fundamentalist …, a tendency which becomes stronger the further north one goes ….

Insofar as Australian religion is derivative from Europe, it has inherited the theological problematic of Western Christianity. But our situation here is different; the very fact of migration has altered what comes as historically given. The problem of how to overcome nihilism, I want to suggest, likewise requires a different response here …. [We Australians] know ourselves to be thrown into a world in which we are not at home. (Indeed many generations of Australians referred to Britain as ‘home’, and we still cringe around the southern and eastern seaboard.) Hence also the conservative, derivative character of church life; caught up as Australians are in the rapidity of modern social change, before any deep cultural traditions could have become established, the churches can provide rare havens of familiar security. Seen in this perspective, it is no longer surprising that the churches which are, by secular measures, most ‘successful’, are precisely those which appear aggressively old-fashioned, and offer simple assurance.

Further, the tranquillised self-assurance which [Martin] Heidegger takes to characterise inauthentic Being-at-home is highly manifest in contemporary Australia. Unlike people in other countries, we know in our hearts that the rhetoric of public life is largely phoney, even as we continue to invoke it. Our overwhelmingly suburban life-style, it seems to me, has to be explained in terms of an obsession to gather material possessions into the supposed security of one’s own home as a compensating reaction to our corporate lack of natural community. Heidegger could be describing Patrick White’s Sarsaparilla ….

The relevance of all this for our character-sketch is that our cultural heritage is not rooted here. Our form of estrangement is not the European one of a culture which has collapsed in on itself to find nullity at the heart of its being. But neither are we at home; in their different ways, the banality and crudity of our everyday Ocker, the strident assertiveness of our churchly behaviour, the haunting elusiveness of the quest for wholeness which pervades our best literature, all testify to this ….

Perhaps we need to ask ourselves more deeply why it is that the Outback still figures so forcefully in our imagery, even though we flee from its untameable emptiness into the seeming security of suburbia. Our consciousness is shot through with that sort of ambiguity: ambiguity about authority, which is reviled and yet conformed to; ambiguity about the land, which is shamelessly exploited and yet cannot be domesticated; ambiguity about ourselves, as a people oriented towards the future yet clinging obsessively to old, familiar forms of thought and social action.

My suggestion, made with great tentativeness and temerity, is that we stand out into emptiness. There is none of Heidegger’s typically European rootedness (Bodenständigkeit) here, and that, I submit, is what unifies the traits of Australian religion I have noted into a single character.

But emptiness is not nothing; it is the uncanny limit of our self-assertion, a beyond, an ‘outback’ which indwells our existence, curbing any pretensions to absolute knowledge or authority. This deep, inarticulate sense of a limit is the correlative of the recognition of the contingency of our being-in-the-world. Practically, it means that we are driven back into our situation, to grapple with the recalcitrant nature of what is given – our so-called materialism and pragmatism. Theologically, it means that the absence of God is not nothing; it is the particular mode of his presence. At one level, the conservative-assertive style of the churches can be explained as a curious refraction of that theological situation within a derivative culture. At a deeper level, a more positive articulation of how we know ourselves to be contingent beings ‘thrown’ into a reality which transcends us and defies our efforts at domestication, might yet provide a basis for an authentic religious consciousness in this country.

– Richard Campbell

Don Watson on the evangelists, and the God, we need

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I’ve been slowly making my way through some old editions of Meanjin. A thoroughly enjoyable experience. Came across this lovely essay by Don Watson. It concludes with these good words:

‘We need a revival. We need more evangelists on the road. I mean real evangelists and a real God: not those unctuous neophytes and sanctimonious suburban lay preachers with their nice God. We need fiery preachers with a fiery God. Man and God in hot competition. Only then can we be assured that one day something funny will happen to those honey-tongued hypocrites in the United States athletics team. It will be very unpleasant for them you can be sure. And the irony will be — the really funny part — they won’t know what hit them’.

– Don Watson, ‘The Joke After God’. Meanjin 46, no. 2 (1986), 235.

[Image: Source]

On empty talk about faith

‘How many have been driven into outer darkness by empty talk about faith as something to be rationally comprehended, something “true”’.

– Dag Hammarskjöld

‘Ethnicity, Social Identity, and the Transposable Body of Christ’

The latest issue of Mission Studies is now available online, and includes a little article I wrote on ‘Ethnicity, Social Identity, and the Transposable Body of Christ’. The Abstract reads:

This essay attends to the relationship between our ethnic, social, and cultural identities, and the creation of the new communal identity embodied in the Christian community. Drawing upon six New Testament texts – Ephesians 2:11–22; Galatians 3:27–28; 1 Corinthians 7:17–24 and 10:17; 1 Peter 2:9–11; and Revelation 21:24–26 – it is argued that the creation of a new and prime identity in Christ does not abrogate other creaturely identities, even as it calls for the removal of such as boundary markers. Catholicity, in other words, is intrinsically related to the most radical particularity, and demands an ongoing work of discernment and of judgement vis-à-vis the gospel itself. Those baptized into Christ are now to live in the reality of Christ who is both the boundary and center of their existence, a boundary which includes all humanity in its cultural, ethnic, gendered, social and historical particularities.

[Image: Jean Marais, ‘Le Passe-Muraille’, Montmartre (1989). Source.]

Bonhoeffer’s Theology in Historical Context

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I’ve noted before that today really is an incredible time to be thinking about and learning from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, that pastor and teacher who from a life cut short over 70 years ago left us a profound vision of what it might mean to speak responsibly of ‘God’ and of ‘the world’ in the same breath, and to be Christian community in one of the most violent and unstable and disenchanted times in recent human history. Rather than seek to escape such realities, Bonhoeffer believed that to follow Jesus is to be thrown ever more deeply into them, into the darkness. He taught us that the first place to look for Christ is in hell, and that it is ‘only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith’. It is only by ‘living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities’ that, he said, we ‘throw ourselves completely into the arms of God’. And this means, for Bonhoeffer, that ministers of the gospel are ‘not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice’ but rather are called to ‘drive a spoke into the wheel itself’.

Next semester, Whitley College will again host the Rev Dr Keith Clements, a leading international Bonhoeffer scholar, who will teach an intensive course on Bonhoeffer and his theology. This is a wonderful opportunity to learn about one of the twentieth century’s greatest and most courageous theological minds, and to wrestle with how some of his convictions might inform our own faithful witness in the world today.

When: Fridays 6pm–9pm | Saturdays 9am–1pm | 14–15, 21–22, 28–29 July and 11–12, 18–19 August
Where: Whitley College, 50 The Avenue, Parkville
Cost: $300 for audit enrolments (normally $500). Discounted Rate available until Thursday 31 May.
Enquiries and enrolments: 03 9340 8100 or email

Just words

Death Sentence.jpgA good little letter by David Hall published in this month’s Crosslight newspaper alerted me to Don Watson’s old book, Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language, and to the wonderful words in its Introduction:

PUBLIC LANGUAGE CONFRONTS MOST of us every day of our lives, but rarely when we are with friends or family. Not yet, at least. It is not the language in which we address lovers, postmen, children or pets. So far.

True, in the households of young professionals they will say sometimes that the new dog adds alpha to their lifestyle; that they need closure with their orthodontist or mother; that they are empowered by their Nikes. There is seepage from the public to the private. But that’s all it is. At this point in time.

Public language is the language of public life: the language of political and business leaders and civil servants – official, formal, sometimes elevated language. It is the language of leaders more than the led, the managers rather than the managed. It takes very different forms: from shapely rhetoric to shapeless, enervating sludge; but in every case it is the language of power and influence. What our duties are, for whom we should vote, which mobile phone plan we should take up: in all these places the public language rules. As power and influence are pervasive so is the language: we hear and read it at the highest levels and the lowest. And while it begins with the powerful, the weak are often obliged to speak it, imitate it. ‘Even politicians speak / truths of value to the weak’, Auden said. Believing as they do that everyone needs something even if they don’t know it, marketing people would agree.

The influence of marketing shows itself in advertising and commerce, where we would expect to find it, and in politics and war, where its presence might surprise us. Marketing goes wherever the media goes and the media goes pretty well everywhere. Naturally the language goes too, which is why all kinds of institutions cannot pass on the simplest information about their services without also telling us that they are contemporary, innovative and forward-looking and committed to continuous improvement, as if the decision to raise their rates or change their phone number can only be grasped in this context-sensitive way. To help us all get going in the same direction they might give the context a name, like Growing Victoria Together or Business Line Plus, or Operation Decapitation where the service is a military one.

Managerialism, a name for various doctrines of business organisation, also comes with a language of its own, and to such unlikely places as politics and education. Even if the organisational principles of management or marketing were so widely appropriate, it is by no means certain that their language is. Marketing, for instance, has no particular concern with truth. Management concerns are relatively narrow – relative, that is, to life, knowledge and possibility. This alone makes marketing and managerial language less than ideal for a democracy or a college. In addition their language lacks almost everything needed to put in words an opinion or an emotion; to explain the complex, paradoxical or uncertain; to tell a joke. If those who propagate this muck really believed in being context-sensitive, they would understand that in the context of ordinary human need and sensibility their language is extraordinarily insensitive. It enrages, depresses, humiliates, confuses. It leaves us speechless.

Public language that defies normal understanding is, as Primo Levi wrote, ‘an ancient repressive artifice, known to all churches, the typical vice of our political class, the foundation of all colonial empires’. They will tell you it is in the interests of leadership, management, efficiency, stakeholders, the bottom line or some democratic imperative, but the public language remains the language of power. It has its origins in the subjection or control of one by another. In all societies, ‘To take power is to win speech’. Whatever its appearance, intimidation and manipulation come as naturally to public language as polite instruction, information and enlightenment. That is why vigilance is needed: an argument concerning the public language is an argument concerning liberty.

To Levi’s list of obfuscating types we could add many sociologists and deconstructionists, including some who design school curricula and courses with the word ‘Studies’ in them. The politically correct might have a case to answer for years of philistine abuse (often, strangely, in the name of cultures), had the Prime Minister not abolished them. We are now all free, he says, to speak our minds; but the language continues to decay, which rather lets political correctness off the hook. Political correctness and its equally irritating twin, anti-political correctness; economic rationalism; dope-smoking; Knowledge Management – wherever cults exist the language inclines to the arcane or inscrutable. This is no bad thing of itself, but obnoxious in a democratic or educational environment. Among Druids, Masons or economists we expect the language to be unfathomable or at least unclear or strange. They speak in code. This can only be because they do not want us to understand, or do not themselves understand, or are so in the habit of speaking this way they have lost the ability to communicate normally. When we hear this sort of language it is, therefore, common sense to assume there is a cult, or something like a cult, in the vicinity. And be alert, if not alarmed.

While English spreads across the globe, the language itself is shrinking. Vast numbers of new words enter it every year, but our children’s and leaders’ vocabularies are getting smaller. Latin and Greek have been squeezed out of most journalists’ English and ‘obscure’ words are forbidden unless they qualify as economic or business jargon. You write for your audience and your audience knows fewer words than it used to and hasn’t time to look up unfamiliar ones. The language of politics is tuned to the same audience and uses the same media to reach it, so it too diminishes year by year. Downsized, business would say. Business language is a desert. Like a public company, the public language is being trimmed of excess and subtlety; what it doesn’t need is shed, what is useful is reorganised, prioritised and attached either to new words or to old ones stripped of meaning. In business, language is now productivity-driven.

What of the media whose words we read and hear every day? The code of conduct of the International Federation of Journalists is categorical: ‘Respect for the truth and the right of the public to truth is the first duty of the journalist.’ There can be no respect for the truth without respect for the language. Only when language is alive does truth have a chance. As the powerful in legend turn the weak or the vanquished into stone, they turn us to stone through language. This is the essential function of a cliché, and of cant and jargon; to neutralise expression and ‘vanish memory’. They are dead words. They will not do for truth.

Therefore, to live according to their code, journalists must choose their own words carefully and skilfully and insist that others do the same. The proper relationship of journalists to the public language is that of unrelenting critics. It is their duty to see through it. But we cannot rely on them. Norman Mailer once wrote on behalf of writers like himself that ‘the average reporter could not get a sentence straight if it were phrased more subtly than his own mind could make phrases’. They munched nuances ‘like peanuts’, he said. True, it happens and it’s maddening, but inadequate prose is still journalism and roughly meets the requirements of the code. It is something else, however, when journalists ignore abuses of the public language by people of influence and power, and reproduce without comment words that are intended to deceive and manipulate. When this happens journalism ceases to be journalism and becomes a kind of propaganda; or a reflection of what Simone Weil called ‘the superb indifference that the powerful have for the weak’.

The war in Iraq provided a case in point. The military provided brand names – Shock and Awe, for instance – and much of the media could see nothing but to use them. Each day of the campaign the media were briefed in the language of the Pentagon’s media relations people, whereupon very often the journalists briefed their audiences in the same language. The media centre in Doha was always on message, and so was the media. When the military said they had degraded by 70 per cent a body of Iraqi soldiers, this was what the media reported. Few said ‘killed’ and only the Iraqi Minister for Information in his daily self-satire said ‘slaughtered’, which was a more honest word but a blatant lie because he said it of American soldiers, not Iraqi ones. One journalist, who knew something about the effects of Daisy Cutter bombs, said ‘pureed’. And no one showed any pictures of the bodies. To be embedded with the Coalition forces was to be embedded in their language and their message. It turned out that embedded just meant ‘in bed with’ in the old language. If they said they had attrited an enemy force, generally that was what the media conveyed, and it was the same if they said deconflicted. All this was a sad retreat from both the journalists’ code of conduct and the noble achievements of twentieth-century war reporting. Just as significant was the way these words spoke for the willingness of journalists to join the military in denying the common humanity of ordinary soldiers – especially the largely conscripted cannon fodder – on the opposing side. Here was another retreat: from war reporting standards going back to Homer.

The public language will only lift in tone and clarity when those who write and speak it take words seriously again. They need to tune their ears to it. Awareness is the only defence against the creeping plague of which this is a microscopic specimen. The inquiry may allow for relevant businesses or industries to be identified and for investigation into the possibility that certain regional or rural areas of the state would be more affected than others. No doubt in the place from which these words came they were judged competent. But they are not competent in the world at large. They are not competent as language. They represent an example of what George Orwell described as anaesthetic writing. You cannot read it without losing some degree of consciousness. You come to, and read it again, and still your brain will not reveal the meaning – will not even try. You are getting sleepy again. Read aloud, in a speech for instance, an audience hears the words as they might hear a plane passing overhead or a television in another room. We can easily make it sound less like a distant aeroplane by the simple expedient of saying it as if we mean it: The inquiry will decide which businesses are relevant and which parts of the state will be badly affected. In fact, to guess at the intended meaning, it might come down to the Inquiry deciding which businesses and which parts of the state will be most affected.

Of course, it’s just one sentence. But we have to begin somewhere.

We must keep it in perspective of course. The decay or near death of language is not life threatening. It can be an aid to crime and tragedy; it can give us the reasons for unreasoning behaviour, including war and genocide and even famine. Words are deadly. Words are bullets. But a word is not a Weapon of Mass Destruction, or a jihad, or unhappiness. Like a rock, it is not a weapon (or a grinding stone) until someone picks it up and uses it as one. We should not get cranky or obsessive about words. You can’t eat them, or buy things with them, or protect your borders with them, and it will not do to make a great display of your concern. There are more important things to think about than what we say or how we say it.

In any case resistance is probably futile: as futile as the Luddites’ resistance was futile. Managerial language may well be to the information age what the machine and the assembly line were to the industrial. It is mechanised language. Like a machine, it removes the need for thinking: this essential and uniquely human faculty is suspended along with all memory of what feeling, need or notion inspired the thing in the first place. To the extent that it is moulded and constrained by opinion polls and media spin, modern political language is the cousin of the managerial and just as alienating. To speak or be spoken to in either variety is to be ‘not in this world’.

Bear in mind just the same that if we deface the War Memorial or rampage through St Paul’s with a sledgehammer we will be locked up as criminals or lunatics. We can expect the same treatment if we release some noxious weed or insect into the natural environment. It is right that the culture and environment should be so respected. Yet every day we vandalise the language, which is the foundation, the frame and joinery of the culture, if not its greatest glory, and there is no penalty and no way to impose one. We can only be indignant. And we should resist.

An interview with Niklas Frank

Niklas Frank.jpg

Today, the BBC World Service’s Hardtalk program ran a fascinating interview with Niklas Frank, the son of Hans Frank, Governor General of Nazi Occupied Poland.

As I listened, I was reminded again that forgiveness is always inescapably personal, and unimaginably hard; and, for some, simply unimaginable: ‘I will never forgive him’.

I was reminded too of the work of the Polish theologian Józef Niewiadomski, who visited Melbourne in 2014. Niewiadomski conceives of the last judgment as an event in which all victims and all perpetrators face each other, and all the evil suffered and inflicted fully is exposed to each person. Were it not for God’s immense good­ness and unrestricted willingness to forgive, and to heal, such an event would no doubt turn into a bloodbath marked by self-justification and accusation of others in which victims and perpetrators would condemn each other to hell. For, as Niewiadomski writes, ‘Each would insist on his or her own status as a victim, each would demand retaliation and each would seek to place on others the punishment that he or she ought to receive’. But confronted with the radical grace of divine forgiveness, he says, ‘hardly anyone [and possibly no one] will withhold forgiveness and continue to insist anachronistically upon his or her own right and revenge’.

That’s hard to believe; it may be even impossible for us.

Perhaps it is a foretaste of this very reality – including its impossibility – that we are given in the Lord’s Supper – a vision of a judgement day marked by victims and perpetrators meeting together around the Table and, in the safe and reconciling love of Christ the host, eat and drink together, and in that action experience the beginnings of healing and transformation and mercy toward the other. Monsters transfigured. We can learn to trust again … and again. It may be that in time, we can move towards forgiveness, apart from which there can be no future.

That’s hard to believe; it may be even impossible for us.

Theology beyond colonialist logic

José de Acosta (1).jpgAmong the many Constantinian assumptions that much Protestantism shares quite uncritically with Romeis a commitment to modes of imperialism that preference and propagate particular cultural forms. The near-idolatry of, and proclivity to proliferate, its own forms, coupled with an ecclesiocentric view of the world, has very often restricted the church from entering into unfamiliar territory in anything but highly-qualified and guarded ways – ways usually accompanied by the violent protection of the state, such as was the case with the Conquistadors (lit. ‘conquerors’) who sought to extend the bounds of Europe to the Americas, to Oceania, to Africa, and to Asia.

I have been reminded of this narrative again recently while reading Willie James Jennings’ The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race. Jennings maps how among the many tragic consequences of associating Christian belief with the power of colonial conquest has been the ways that Christian theology has been harnessed as a ‘discourse of displacement’ which both imagines and appraises new situations ‘wholly within a colonialist logic’. This, as Jennings suggests, has ‘changed the trajectory of the teleological framework of Christianity’ and ‘established a strange kind of insularity and circularity for Christian traditions of enquiry’.One result of this decision has been that ‘the inner coherence of traditional Christian inquiry’ has been ‘grafted onto the inner coherence of colonialism’. 

Reflecting upon the work of the Spanish theologian and naturalist José de Acosta who, in 1570 and at the age of 32, travelled with his Jesuit brothers from Spain via Columbia and Panama to teach at the newly-established mission in Peru, Jennings outlines the ways that the historic colonialist trajectory of much Christian theology is marked by ‘pedagogical imperialism’ and ‘epistemic insularity’ that makes it frightfully difficult for theologians to imagine whom we ‘belong to as we write, as we think, as we pray. This problem’, Jennings argues, ‘has fundamentally to do with a world formed and continuing to be formed to undermine the possibilities of Christians living together, loving together, and desiring each other. Such a desire is not a narcissistic longing for self to be seen in others, or an indulgent seeking for the comfort of like-minded doctrinal confessors. It is the necessary beginning for overturning the remade world’.

Naming some of the implications of this challenge for his own context as a teacher serving in the academy, Jennings argues that ‘Black Atlantic Christianity … lacks appeal because, enamored of the power and beauty of whiteness, … [it] presents itself to no one but itself and tragically invites “nonwhite” peoples to do the same. An intellectual life formed in so unappealing a setting becomes crushingly insular. It is exactly the insularity of Christian theology and all its identifiers (for example, orthodox, liberal, conservative, and so on) and the insularity of its Christian contextual responses and all its identifiers (for example, African, Asian, feminist, womanist) that repeatedly show Christians the missed opportunities of Christian intellectual life’.

Jennings’ is work launched by the assumption that worlds constituted on slave ships or by racial subjugation need to be overturned, and even where such efforts are provisional at best, such capsizing bears witness to the right orientation of things birthed of the hope gifted by the God of life. Such capsizing also calls for drawing from ‘the processes of displacement and translation clearer sight of something genuinely new in the formation of Christianity in modernity, the interpenetration of the vernacularization of Christianity and the production of space’. The logic of the incarnation means that the life and witness of the Christian community must not, as Jennings puts it, ‘stand over native flesh’. (Jennings is concerned to not dismiss what he calls ‘the important parental legacy of Christianity’ insofar as these nurture academic work in the modern West, especially for Black intellectuals. But, he argues, ‘we must not allow this legacy to blind us to the aching absence of a truly Christian intellectual community’ that reflects in its work ‘the incarnate reality of the Son who has joined the divine life to our lives and invites us to deep abiding intellectual joining, not only of ideas but of problems, not only of concepts but of concerns, not only of beliefs and practices but of common life, and all of it of the multitude of many tongues’.) To proceed along such lines is to abandon one of the genius insights of that first generation of Protestants regarding the freedom of the Word unharnessed from but at home among the particularities of any one culture or form, including ecclesial ones.

‘The catholicity of time in the work of George Mackay Brown’

Gunnie Moberg - George Mackay Brown

The latest issue of Pacifica is now available, and includes my little article on ‘The catholicity of time in the work of George Mackay Brown’. The Abstract reads:

This essay introduces and explores some explicitly theological concerns in the work of the Orcadian poet, novelist, and dramatist George Mackay Brown (1921–96). More specifically, its interest is with Brown’s presentation and treatment of the notion of time. Drawing on examples from a wide selection of his work, it is argued that Brown’s conversion to Roman Catholicism, and in particular his delight in the enchantment of the Mass, allowed him to exploit a distinctly Catholic sacramental theology and aesthetic of creation – its location, people, and history – appraised in light of the Eucharist.

[Image: George Mackay Brown, with cat. Photograph by Gunnie Moberg]

The Pacific Journal of Baptist Research: a call for papers

pjbr nov 2015.pngThe Pacific Journal of Baptist Research (PJBR) is an open-access online journal which aims to provide an international vehicle for scholarly research and debate in the Baptist tradition, with a special focus on the Pacific region. However, topics are not limited to the Pacific region, and all subject matter potentially of significance for Baptist/Anabaptist communities will be considered. PJBR is especially interested in theological and historical themes, and preference will be given to articles on those themes. PJBR is published twice-yearly in May and November. Articles are fully blind peer-reviewed, with submissions sent to international scholars in the appropriate fields for critical review before being accepted for publication. PJBR is indexed with ATLA/S. PJBR is currently accepting contributions for its 2017 volumes from graduate students, faculty, and other researchers. Information for contributors can be found here and essays can be emailed to the Senior Editor, Dr Myk Habets.

A little MacKinnon for Lent

rembrandt-christ-before-caiaphas-c-1649-50

‘In every Eucharist the death of Christ is shown forth sacramentally, and we are made partakers of His merits and His life. But in the liturgical cycle of Lent and Passiontide, the rejection and the Passion of the Son of Man are presented to us, as it were, no longer as the ground of our access to the Father and the source of our reconciliation and sanctification, but as a series of historical events. In our approach to the Eucharist, though it is through the sacramental oblation of Christ’s sacrifice that we do honour to the Father, acknowledging His sovereign dominion, inevitably we think more of the substance of that offering than of the accidents of its historical (or sacramental) embodiment. Yet in Passiontide we are led by the sovereign wisdom of the Church to attend to the individual details of that supreme confrontation of the Light of God with the darkness of this world. We realize that in that moment, when the fallen natural order was so mightily invaded by the transcendent majesty of God, and the powers of darkness overthrown in the agony of Gethsemane and Calvary, it was through the action of particular historical individuals that the full strength of the kingdom of Satan assailed the kingdom that came in Jesus. Judas, Pilate, Caiaphas are concrete, historical individuals. They are not, as so many well-intentioned Holy Week addresses suggest, merely abstract types of pride, compromise, envy. For, if we treat them so, we lose altogether the insight that the Passion would afford us into the historical mission of the Body of Christ’.

– D. M. MacKinnon

Some P. T. Forsyth Resources

Books/Booklets

 

Selected Articles

 

Secondary Literature (since 2000)