on white christendom

White Jesus.jpg‘White Christendom in America survives pathetically.

The traditions and ethics of the inherited, white denominations – as their adherents sense privately, and everyone else acknowledges openly – are moribund, nostalgic for a legendary past, extravagantly irrelevant to virtually anything to which one might attempt to relate them. White Christendom’s institutions are truly secular, that is, utterly preoccupied with their own survival, and hence dissipated in anxiety. Their human constituency is being visibly depleted by dropouts, deaths, and other departures. The people of these churches have been stunned by the renunciation voiced by their own offspring, bewildered by the long overdue rejection of their paternalism by the blacks, and so traumatized by their guilt that their conscience has been both perverted and paralyzed. They have feted a doctrine of achievement in work and in charity that is bereft of biblical authority and that now turns out not even to have the illusion of efficacy. After seeking a justification that proved futile, they grow frantic and afraid, increasingly tempted to an anger that only a false righteousness can spawn.

The condition of white Christendom is pathological; it is, I suggest, the state designated in the Bible as “hardness of heart.”

The reason for this bitter ailment is that the white churches in America have long doubted the very existence, much less the vitality, of the Holy Spirit. In these denominations, on the whole, it has never been seriously granted that God has freedom and discretion in being present and active in this world; it has never been conceded that God is not dependent upon human beings and, specifically, upon the white, American bourgeois. It has been presumed instead that God needs these churches, that God’s integrity requires their effort, that God’s existence in history is verified by their prosperity, popularity, and power. Today, with the legitimacy of their wealth under challenge, their reputation the butt of ridicule, and their power ineffectual, it becomes clear that their god is indeed dead and, even more threatening, that their god is not and never was God’.

Mr Stringfellow
St James’ Day, 1969
Block Island, Rhode Island

A Christian theology of marriage

I. Foundation. “For … all things have been created through him and for him” (Colossians 1.16). Jesus Christ is the one Word of God in, by and for whom humanity is constituted. He alone reveals God’s will for human life and flourishing. Consequently, marriage ought primarily to be understood christologically. The Church therefore rejects as false all efforts to ground its doctrine and ethics in sources apart from and besides this one Word of God. Such efforts threaten to turn an institution or relationship into an idol, an anti-Christ.

II. Eschatology. “ ‘… and the two will become one flesh’. This is a profound mystery – but I am talking about Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5.31–32). Like every gift from God, marriage is good and fitting – not only for individual persons and families, but also for the flourishing of human society. But its goodness is closely associated with its provisionality – with its being bound to the creation which is passing away (eg. Luke 18.29; Matthew 19.12; 22.30) – and with it, as with celibacy, bearing prophetic witness to the coming new creation. Its ultimate meaning is eschatological and so it is called to be characterised by the transforming of old markers and the reconstituting of human relationality in the light of God’s coming. The Church therefore rejects efforts to explain the mystery of marriage solely in terms of the old creation. Furthermore, because Holy Scripture speaks of marriage in terms of Christ’s relation to the Church unbound by gender, we reject the claim that marriage’s signalling of Christ’s relationship with his bride must be gender specific.

III. Discipleship. “Then he said to them all, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me’” (Luke 9.23). Jesus Christ calls and the Holy Spirit empowers persons to leave behind all that has the appearance of certainty, and to become his disciples. This call precedes and exists uncompetitively with all other claims that may be made. God’s provision (marriage is a “gift” rather than a “right”) of marriage during this time-between-the-times is a particular vocation given to some so that they might be trained in the way of discipleship; learn how to recognise the otherness of the other (i.e., as a being not under their power); be taught love of neighbour; celebrate the mystery of friendship; be schooled in embodied witness, repentance and virtue; practice the meaning of sacrifice, the risk of hospitality and the formation of community and be ready to accept the challenges of new life which love creates – the disciplines of denial and restraint that liberate human persons for sanctification. The Church therefore rejects as false all efforts to understand marriage (and all other human relationships) independently of the call to discipleship.

IV. Desire. “This is my body, which is given for you” (Luke 22.19). Marriage occasions a social context to commit oneself to being where one’s body is, to make one’s body available for the other – “for better, for worse … for as long as you live” (Book of Common Order) – and for desire to mean more than meeting emotional and physical needs. While it is beyond the creature’s power to make sex spiritually or sacramentally significant (indeed, all such attempts are idolatrous), it is entirely commensurate with God’s character to do so; ie. to make good on the promise that human beings are more than material. “The moral question, at this point, ought to be how much we want our sexual activity to communicate, how much we want it to display a breadth of human possibility and a sense of the body’s capacity to heal and enlarge the life of other subjects,” says Rowan Williams. The Church therefore rejects as illegitimate all expressions of desire for other persons unbridled and undirected by commitment to the relationship in which the blessing of the other is not a foremost concern.

V. Election and covenant. “How can I give you up, Ephraim?” (Hosea 11.8). Marriage serves as an analogue to, and a reflection of the electing love of God (however imperfect). Marriage exists because God loves Israel, in whom God also makes space for gentiles. This is God’s counter word to the fear many couples experience; namely, the threat to the security of their own marriages from the “other”. The Word of God brings persons into covenant communion with God and with each other, the character of which is holy, loving, and unbreakable. The Church therefore rejects all theological justification for divorce. That said, lest we turn God’s gracious provision into an ideology, the Church equally rejects all notions of indissolubility which smuggle in a metaphysic whereby divorce and remarriage are made authentic impossibilities. “Indeed, if one purpose of marriage is to serve as a sign of God’s love in the world … how can we reject the possibility that a second marriage after a divorce could serve as a sign of grace and redemption from the sin and brokenness of the past?” (Richard Hays).

VI. Responsible freedom. “You were called to freedom; do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another” (Galatians 5.13). Marriage is an expression of the freedom granted to God’s human creatures and to the societies they form. So, “It is lawful for all sorts of people to marry, who are able with judgement to give their consent” (The Westminster Confession of Faith). Marriage, in other words, is created not by a ceremony per se but by an act of responsible freedom. Where possible, a public ceremony – wherein the “I do” confessed by the couple and heard by a public serves as both creative and performative utterance – might also represent such an act and so ought to be the norm. Still, “there are many marriages, true though incomplete, which the Church has never blessed or the State ratified” (James K. Baxter). If a couple “cannot or will not have one another in this freedom, it is far better for them not to want to have one another at all” (Karl Barth). The Church therefore rejects all pre-determined images (whether understood in terms of roles, or contractual obligations, or any other matters decided in advance) of what any particular marriage might look like as being fundamentally at odds with the loving promise of covenant freedom in God. “Gratuitous, beyond our fathom, both binding and freeing, this love re-invades us, shifts the boundaries of our being” (Micheal O’Siadhail).

A little piece on voluntary assisted dying in The Conversation

 

The Conversation.pngRobyn Whitaker and I teamed up to offer a few thoughts for The Conversation on voluntary assisted dying ‘Voluntary assisted dying is not a black-and-white issue for Christians’.

My longer essay on the subject – ‘Euthanasia: Some theological considerations for living responsibly’ – can be accessed via this link. I am grateful that SAGE have granted free public access to the article until the end of October.

On class (et al.)

HBT.jpgEvery now and then – and more ‘then’ than ‘now’ – public discourse concerns itself with the question of class. (This happened briefly, for example, after the recent, although it doesn’t feel that way, presidential elections in the USA. At the time, some good commentary appeared in the US, and some people even wondered for a moment if Bernie wasn’t as mad as previously thought.)

A recent essay titled ‘In Defence of the Bad, White Working Class’, written by Shannon Burns and published in Meanjin, opens up similar questions for our context here in Australia, although the implications of its judgements and insights remain clearly wide in scope. It discusses racism, multiculturalism, class values, social and political discourse, tribalism, and more.

Burns believes that ‘progressives’ – among whom are the kind of chardonnay socialists who read Meanjin – ‘might benefit from considering lower class points of view, and the experiences that forge them, at least once in a while. They might also find that addressing those sensibilities, instead of ignoring or deriding them, opens up new pathways to mutual understanding and cooperation’.

As a taster, here are three snippets: the first on political discourse, the second on grievance as a sign of middle-class privilege, and the third on politically-correct speech:

The habits of progressive social and political discourse almost seem calculated to alienate and aggravate lower class whites.

….

Indeed, the willingness to expose your wounds is another sign of privilege. Those for whom injury has a use-value will display their injuries; those for whom woundedness is a survival risk, won’t. As a consequence, middle-class grievances now drown out lower class pain. This is why the wounded lower classes come to embrace conservative discourses that ridicule middle-class anguish. Those who cannot afford to see themselves as disadvantaged are instinctively repulsed by those who harp on about disadvantage.

….

Consider who determines the standards of so-called politically correct speech. Are they primarily negotiated across classes and social groups, or are they determined from above? If the latter is the case, then it would be senseless to deny that political correctness, as it stands, is a form and expression of elitism. When rules of expression are forced on people who have their own peculiar relationship to speech, and who can reasonably be expected to struggle with the constraints, it is not a fair imposition. Political correctness is hardly the evil that conservative commentators make it out to be, but as a moral burden it is clearly weighted against the lower classes, who are smart enough to recognise when they are being set up to fail.

Read the full essay here.

PUBLIC LECTURE: ‘Priorities for a public theology in a time of extremisms: Fresh insights from Bonhoeffer’

Postage Stamp Germany 1995 Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Whitley Theological College and the University of Divinity’s Centre for Research in Religion and Social Policy are very pleased to be hosting a free public lecture by the leading Bonhoeffer scholar the Revd Dr Keith Clements.

The lecture is titled ‘Priorities for a public theology in a time of extremisms: Fresh insights from Bonhoeffer’.

  • When: Thursday, 10 August, 2017. 6:00pm–8:00pm.
  • Where: Whitley College Theological School, 50 The Avenue, Parkville, Melbourne.
  • Cost: Free, but registration via TryBooking would be appreciated.

The Revd Dr Gordon Preece, Director of RASP, will offer a response to the lecture.

This will be the second public lecture on Bonhoeffer that Whitley has hosted this year. The first was Dr Andrew Root’s lecture on ‘Dietrich Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker’.

Euthanasia: Some theological considerations for living responsibly

Die Klage der heiligen Zeder

A recent issue of Pacifica includes my article on euthanasia. It can be accessed via this link. Apparently, SAGE have granted free access to the article until the end of October.

[Image: Anselm Kiefer, ‘Die Klage der heiligen Zeder’, 1981]

‘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.

IMG_8442

Maribyrnong River, Sunrise. 15 July 2017.

Three remarkable Australians

In recent days, I’ve enjoyed watching these three wonderful interviews:

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’

Reading.jpg

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?

John Bale.jpg

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

‘My mother’s God’, by Geoff Page

Blake - God Judging Adam (c. 1795).jpg

My mother’s God
has written the best
of the protestant proverbs:

you make the bed
you lie in it;
God helps him

who helps himself.
He tends to shy away from churches,
is more to be found in

phone calls to daughters
or rain clouds over rusty grass.
The Catholics

have got him wrong entirely:
too much waving the arms about,
the incense and caftan, that rainbow light.

He’s leaner than that,
lean as a pair of
grocer’s scales,

hard as a hammer at cattle sales
the third and final
time of asking.

His face is most clear
in a scrubbed wooden table
or deep in the shine of a

laminex bench.
He’s also observed at weddings and funerals
by strict invitation, not knowing quite

which side to sit on.
His second book, my mother says,
is often now too well received;

the first is where the centre is,
tooth for claw and eye for tooth
whoever tried the other cheek?

Well, Christ maybe,
but that’s another story.
God, like her, by dint of coursework

has a further degree in predestination.
Immortal, omniscient, no doubt of that,
he nevertheless keeps regular hours

and wipes his feet clean on the mat,
is not to be seen at three in the morning.
His portrait done in a vigorous charcoal

is fixed on the inner
curve of her forehead.
Omnipotent there

in broad black strokes
he does not move.
It is not easy, she’d confess,

to be my mother’s God.

– Geoff Page

[Audio]

Image: William Blake, ‘God Judging Adam’ (c. 1795)

‘Grace always bats last’

A confession: I’m not normally a fan of TED talks (especially the religious ones), but every non-fan ought to at least live with the possibility of making an exception every now and then:

‘The mystery of grace is that God loves Henry Kissinger and Vladimir Putin and me exactly as much as He or She loves your new grandchild. Go figure. The movement of grace is what changes us, heals us and heals our world. To summon grace, say, “Help,” and then buckle up. Grace finds you exactly where you are, but it doesn’t leave you where it found you. And grace won’t look like Casper the Friendly Ghost, regrettably. But the phone will ring or the mail will come and then against all odds, you’ll get your sense of humor about yourself back. Laughter really is carbonated holiness. It helps us breathe again and again and gives us back to ourselves, and this gives us faith in life and each other. And remember — grace always bats last’.

Grace always bats last’! Well said Anne Lamott.

Physician assisted suicide, euthanasia, and capitalism

There’s a good little piece here by Daniel Fleming, who reminds us of the larger economic context in which debates about physician assisted suicide and euthanasia are taking place; and, should the legislation be passed, of the context in which the legislation will be enacted. Here’s a taster:

Where we make social interventions in our context, we should also remember that it will inevitably become someone’s business to deliver on them. Correlatively, in answer to the first question, we should consider what the impact of private, for-profit, companies which specialise in the provision of euthanasia might be. Such companies would have as their primary purpose profit or return to share-holders. They would, assumedly, be required to increase business in order to produce better annual results. What would their marketing strategies look like? Who would their target market be?

One can quickly imagine a strategic planning meeting whereby the market of those who are dying or those who are close to someone who is dying become the aim of the product, perhaps also particularly those who would not be able to afford other forms of end of life care, or those who are suffering from some form of depression. The current proposed legislation [in Victoria and New South Wales] rests on the possibility of someone making a free and fully informed decision, but freedom and coercion have a tenuous relationship when it comes to marketing strategies – especially those directed at vulnerable groups, and that is something we should consider in this case.

To put it crudely, if we agree to this legislation we should be willing to accept active and aggressive marketing strategies from companies who enact it …

Such companies do not currently exist, but for-profit health insurance companies do, and so we should also consider what the proposed legislation might look like from the perspective of an insurance company which is trying to improve its bottom line. Could it be that insurance companies would direct patients toward the cheaper option instead of agreeing to a larger payout for more expensive care?

In the United States, for example, a physician recently claimed that “insurance companies in states where assisted suicide is legal have refused to cover expensive, life-saving treatments for his patients but have offered to help them end their lives instead.” As anyone who has sat in a budget meeting will know, the logic applied here by the insurance companies is perfectly compatible with the value-set imposed by capitalism.

These are uncomfortable considerations, and they take the debate outside of its typical contours which consider the suffering of an individual and sometimes their family, and whether or not it is right for that person to end their own life with medical assistance. That debate still needs to be had. However we land there, it is crucial to remember that the debate takes place in an ideological context, and if or when the legislation is enacted it will be done in a way that takes it beyond the intent of those proposing it, and into the realm of the value set of capitalism. Any legislation or major social interventions has social consequences beyond its original purpose.

You can read the full article here.

Some afternoon meanderings

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‘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.

Some notes on church worship in Chile

One thing I often like to do when I’m travelling is to visit places of religious worship, whether such be Buddhist, Baha’i, or Hindu temples, or Muslim mosques, or Jewish synagogues, or Christian houses of worship. Among other reasons, this is partly because understanding the cultus (i.e., those convictions and values embodied in ritual and ceremony) of a place is a window into better understanding its broader culture, and partly because I’m fascinated by how such strange creatures as we constantly seek to orient our lives around, from, and towards things transcendent. We are, after all, homo religiosus, as St Augustine taught. One way that this is manifest is in the erection of little shrines around the country, such as this one pictured on the left – a phenomena prevalent in every part of the world I’ve visited.

Currently, I’m in Chile. It’s a country where about 61% of the population describe ‘religion’ as being either ‘very important’ or ‘somewhat important’ in their lives, and where somewhere in the order of 70% of those over the age of 14 identify themselves as ‘Christian’, the majority of whom (60–70%) are Roman Catholic, and around 15% identify as ‘evangelical’. 90% of evangelicals tick the box that says ‘Pentecostal’. The remaining 10% of Protestants are a smorgasbord of mostly Lutherans, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Baptists, Seventh-Day Adventists, and Methodists. While the numbers are debatable, Mormons claim to be the second largest religious group in the country, after Roman Catholics. There are only around 17,000 Jews, and 3,000–4,000 Muslims in the entire country.

During my time here, I’ve visited a number of churches, both Catholic and Protestant. Last Sunday, for example, I was in Santiago and spent time at the Primera Iglesia Bautista de Santiago (pictured on the right), a large Baptist church with strong links to the Southern Baptist Convention. It was an interesting experience, although I must say that an hour of 80s-style rock ‘n’ roll – even when led by a delightful worship leader, as it was – followed by a sermon that goes for over an hour is hard work on the crowd, especially since it seemed like all the important stuff was happening ‘up the front’ as it were. Still, it seemed that most people like it this way. Open Bibles and the provision of a detailed sermon outline indicated that here were people wanting to be schooled in Christ. That said, judging by the queues for the loo after the service it also seems like many were literally busting to get out of there. I know I was. And yet, at the same time I very much welcomed this connection with my Baptist sisters and brothers.

During the week, I also visited a number of Roman Catholic churches, mostly in Santiago’s inner city. These were near empty on Sunday morning, but during the week these cold, dark, dusty, and musty buildings were frequently occupied by somewhere between 40–100 or so people who were praying, mostly at the various side chapels, a couple of which in each place were clearly more important – or more interesting, or more something else – than the others. People stood to pray, knelt to pray, sat to pray. I was struck by how expressive much of this prayer was. (To be sure, it was on par with other forms of physical expression I observed in countless public places.) Apart from the sidelines of sporting fields or the endless checkouts of shopping malls, such out-in-the-open demonstration of one’s religion is rarely seen in Australia, where we tend to keep our religion more private and where public displays of such are likely to attract the unforgivable accusation of ‘hypocrite’ or ‘religious wanker’.

Today, when the church marked Pentecost, I attended two church services in San Pedro de Atacama, in northern Chile. The first was at the Ministerio Iglesia Apostolica Internacional. Here a small, friendly, and welcoming congregation of just under 20 devoted worshippers meet each Sunday morning in a very small and minimally-adorned room on the edge of town. I too heard the Call to Worship here:

Here, there were no song sheets or data projector to be had (what a relief!), and a sole musician strummed a nylon-string guitar, simply. It was beautiful.

These were humble and decent folk. For two-and-a-half hours, they loved Jesús nuestro Señor together (it was unclear who ‘the’ pastor was, as most adults seemed to take various leadership responsibilities) through some very loud singing and prayers and constant sharing of potato chips, through the reading of Holy Scripture (they stood for the Gospel reading. The preacher read the full text, and then the congregation all read it together), and through an impassioned 20-minute sermon on Matthew 13.45–46, during which time the kids and two women went to a house up the street for Sunday School. Together, they prayed as if ‘God’ might be able to hear them. They prayed like people desperate to find a rare pearl in a field of weeds. They prayed as if their entire world depended on these two hopes. They prayed like they lived – expectantly.

​​The sermon was immediately followed by most people falling onto their knees and praying – led loudly by the preacher; I did wonder at times if some of the men here imagined that God was deaf – and by the mysteriously-coordinated return of the children and their teachers. I wondered about Barth’s warnings about giving ‘no opportunity for enthusiastic rhapsody’, but it was not my task here to make that call; and anyway, if he was serious about that then he should never have written IV/2.

This was followed by a time of laying-on-of-hands and of mutual blessing.

Overall, the gathered seemed to go through an enormous number of tissues, wiping eyes and blowing noses that had been stimulated by some very emotional worship.

Did I mention that it was beautiful?

Not yet worshipped out, an hour or so later I attended Mass at the beautiful Iglesia San Pedro de Atacama, probably the second oldest church building in Chile. The church building is made principally of mud and algarrobo and cacti woods, and bound together by llama leather. It was first constructed during the seventeenth century, and has undergone various modifications and additions since. Here, two priests adorned in Pentecost red, a few nuns, and an impressive music group, led a packed cathedral in worship. I was grateful for the moments of silence here, silence shared with so many devoted people who were seeking connection with things transcendent.

And as the handsome priest placed the wafer on my tongue, I found myself joining them. It was as if the entire week – indeed my entire life, including all those worship events – was simply the prelude to this moment when the Body of God might be consumed.

‘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]