‘Embracing the Subjective’: A Review of Sarah Agnew’s Embodied Performance: Mutuality, Embrace, and the Letter to Rome

Sarah Agnew, Embodied Performance: Mutuality, Embrace, and the Letter to Rome (Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2020). 298 pages. ISBN: 9781725257849.

‘And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, making scholars the world over profoundly uncomfortable’ (John 1.14, Mossfield paraphrase).

At first glance, Sarah Agnew’s new book Embodied Performance: Mutuality, Embrace, and the Letter to Rome (2020) has a relatively straightforward goal: to develop a methodology by which contemporary biblical storytellers might share in a scholarly fashion the insights they gain into a text through performance. Indeed, the need for a such a methodology may appear self-evident and the reader might rightly wonder why no such method already exists. Yet, this absence in the field of biblical criticism reveals the deeper and more important project which Agnew undertakes in this book: challenging modern biblical scholars to take seriously the reality of embodiment and incarnation which lies at the heart of the Christian story.

Like in other academic fields, the watchwords of modern biblical criticism include objectivity and reason. As a performer-interpreter of biblical texts, however, Agnew became increasingly aware of intuitive, subjective insights that the act of performance gave her into Scripture. Noting increasing interdisciplinary evidence of ‘embodied cognition’ (that is, knowledge gained through the body), and building on the growing field of Biblical Performance Criticism (BPC), Agnew consequently developed her Embodied Performance Analysis (EPA) to allow the subjective to speak into contemporary scholarship. In her own words, ‘EPA invites the physical, emotional, and relational aspects of human meaning-making to contribute to conversations generally dominated by rational objectivity’ (142). Here, Agnew seeks to transcend the limits of BPC (with its focus on how a text was historically performed) and embrace the subjective, contemporary performance as a realm for authentic interpretation and meaning making.

Yet, Agnew’s EPA method does not seek to supplant traditional, objective scholarship. Rather, through a three-stage process of preparation, performance, and critical reflection, Agnew hopes to create a dialogue between reason and embodied knowledge. In the EPA framework, therefore, ‘the performer-interpreter employs tools of the body, emotion, and audience, integrated [my emphasis] with a range of pertinent exegetical approaches, to discern meaning in a biblical composition, presented in an Analysis comprised of Performance Interpretation and Critical Reflection’ (132). It is this interaction between Agnew’s observation of her embodiment of the Word (through movement, tone, hesitation, voice, and gesture), and preexisting scholarly debates over the meaning of a text, that makes Embodied Performance most compelling to read. For, as a preacher, I am conscious of the ways studying a text with the goal of proclaiming good news to my congregation presents unique understandings that I could not have gained in the seminary library. Likewise, Agnew’s insight into the text through her performance of it, offers another rich lens of meaning to me as both a preacher and a disciple. Agnew, however, seeks to go a step further – not just naming insights in an interesting way, but enabling them to participate in ongoing academic debate.

What Agnew demonstrates in Embodied Performance is that, when given voice, performance may indeed contribute significant value to biblical criticism. For example, in preparing to perform Paul’s letter to the Romans, Agnew noted the way she would step intuitively to one side or another as she embodied different voices or personas in Paul’s argument. Agnew was surprised, however, to find herself stepping in a new direction when speaking the words at Romans 7.15, ‘I do not understand my own actions’ (NRSV). In engaging with preexisting commentaries, Agnew discovered an ongoing dialogue between scholars over the meaning of the ‘I’ in this discourse at the end of the chapter. While some argued that Paul was referring to himself, others suggested that the ‘I’ was a rhetorical device with which Paul sought to include his audience in the narrative of sin. For Agnew, however, her body’s movement revealed ‘instinctively this felt like a discrete, new, voice’ (166). Consequently, Agnew concluded, along with the second group of scholars, that the ‘I’ of Romans 7 was ‘an “every-person” caught up in the cosmic battle of good and evil’ (167). While Agnew’s conclusion may not be unique (indeed, it is well within the bounds of the existing debate), her embodied insights offer a new interpretative lens that helps ‘tip the argument’ where traditional scholarship had reached an impassable stalemate. Embodied Performance Analysis then may indeed offer meaning to biblical scholars in a way that alone studying words on a page may not.

Of course, as with any new methodology, Agnew’s Embodied Performance has some limitations. Agnew herself highlights the omission of some difficult passages (such as those dealing with the place of Israel in Romans 9–11) from the performance for lack of an appropriate way to parse their meaning with sufficient nuance; the need for other performer-interpreters to also use and test the method; and the risk that the performer may impart too much of their own theology into the meaning-making process. In addition, I note that Agnew’s critical reflection on the performance at times blurs the line between performance insights (that is, meaning derived from the act of performance and contributed to scholarly debates), and performance choices (that is, those places where Agnew chooses to perform a passage in a certain way because of the scholarly position, without necessarily offering any new insights toward it). In Embodied Performance, Agnew does begin to take steps towards addressing some of these limitations (such as using omission as a source for exegetical discussion, or noting audience reactions against those places where she intentionally imparted too much of her own theology). Nevertheless, none of these issues prevents Agnew from demonstrating her key point: performance does indeed have important insights to contribute to biblical scholarship.

But what of the average preacher or congregant? As a Minister in a local congregation, I had some mixed reaction to the utility of Agnew’s book in my context. As a preacher, I noted the encouragement to engage with my subjective insights into a biblical text as part of the interpretative task. Throughout my reading of the text, however, I was also conscious that I am not a biblical storyteller and wondered if I should ever have occasion to practice Agnew’s EPA methodology myself. Yet, this is not what Agnew asks of either the biblical scholar or the local church leader. Instead, Agnew encourages us to hear the insights gained by biblical storytellers as a key part of the ‘fullness of human epistemology’ (191) and to be open to the knowledge of embodied existence for understanding the meaning of any biblical text. And so, if the only outcome of my reading this book is that I begin to include EPA scholars in my weekly reading in preparing the sermon, then it seems to me this shall have been a book worth reading. For Agnew’s Embodied Performance challenges both the Church and academia to embrace the embodied Word. The question that remains is: will we?

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Daniel Mossfield is a Minister of the Word of the Uniting Church in Australia. He serves in rural NSW, working at the intersection of traditional and emerging forms of church, and is passionate about the sacramental nature of preaching and what it means to be the church in a secular age. He lives and works on Gundungurra and Wiradjuri land. 

Acts of Surveillance: Tim Winton’s That Eye, The Sky

Acts of watching, and being watched, are deeply ambivalent phenomena. The English language has a range of more or less positive terms for these acts: vision, seeing/understanding, perception, discernment, as well as a host of imaginative, even fantasy conjunctions around seeing: imagining, envisioning, fantasising, displaying, spectacle. However, it has to be said that the negative or potentially malevolent terms for watching and being watched trip off the tongue more readily: voyeurism, spying, surveillance, scrutiny, leering, ogling, peering, staring, eye-balling, monitoring, inspection, bugging.

In relation to the age of so-called ‘capitalist surveillance’ (Zuboff, 2019), critic James Bridle defines this age in terms of human belittlement. More than ever, writes Bridle, subjects are captured and categorised by pervasive mechanisms of surveillance, producing a ‘litany of appropriated experiences … repeated so often and so extensively that we become numb, forgetting that this is not some dystopian imagining of the future, but the present’. Shoshana Zuboff, the author of the 2019 work The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, which Bridle is reviewing, argues that around the year 2000 there was in many societies, globally, an exponential shift in modes of surveillance at both personal and social levels, through digitalisation. ‘Being watched’ takes on personal and transpersonal, ideological and more sinister overtones in Zuboff’s research into the netting of information by social media and governmental data collecting. Wikileaks is one, ongoing response to these phenomena, releasing as it has done over 10 million documents garnered by government and military media. In many ways the shift Zuboff describes might be better understood as an amplification of what prophetic novels such as George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty Four (1949), Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) and, differently, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006) imagine. They are among many futuristic literary texts that evoke the suffocating and pervasive fear of being watched, hunted, categorised, known. The popularity of these dystopian texts is evidence of a widespread frisson, if not fear, amongst readers and film audiences, of the circumscribing of individual selfhood.

Zuboff’s research is prophetic, seeing into the consequences of present actions for a future hurtling towards us; and it enables me to take a fresh look (yes, the critic as watcher) into a 1986 Australian novel, That Eye the Sky, by well-known Australian author Tim Winton. Many of the texts named above probe threatened innocence and selfhood, as does Winton’s novel. However, That Eye the Sky is not dystopian. It is gentler, humorous, vernacular. Its brooding watcher – that eye the sky – takes the form of a glowing cloud hovering over the family house, and is mirrored in another watcher, a young, vulnerable boy entering early manhood, who sees things. Watching is part of the boy’s fertile and curious imagination, rather than being registered as malevolent. Theological, biblical, and mystical ideas about suffering, human love, trust, and hope flow through the novel’s vision of present and future, as the characters and their precarious forms of innocence are threatened by trauma, and by a wider urban world encroaching on their frugal existence. This is a remembered – mythical? – time before social media, set on the fringes of the urban, a time when children could go out and play alone, down by the creek, unsupervised.

Along with humour and the use of vernacular, That Eye the Sky creates its theology through a simplicity that underscores the darker, ongoing questions: is there an eye out there, watching? Is that eye benevolent, protective? Or neutral, deaf to human existence, or worse? The main character, twelve-year-old Ort Flack, asks these questions, as do readers, as the plot darkens.

Every ontological and social category in Winton’s That Eye the Sky is written under erasure, as already passing: childhood, hippiedom, Christianity, church, the bush, God, trust, knowledge, grief, love. As so often in the novels of Winton, the child, and a child’s eye-view, are central. Ort lives in a run-down house in the middle of the bush with his semi-hippy parents and sister. He is the narrator. He sees and feels things: clouds hovering over the house, red eyes peering in from the dark of the bush, a sky, benevolent or otherwise, looking down on him and his family, as trauma strikes. Ort is innocent, different, ostracised. He is sensuously alive to the smells and textures of the bush, to the sound of wind across the tops of the trees, observing the luminousness of moon and stars and the moods and feelings of his mother and sister as they grapple with the tragedy engulfing them. And he carries with him a constant sense of being watched over.

But Ort is also a voyeur. Turning thirteen, on the cusp of sexual awareness, and also alive to mystical possibilities, he peers through cracks and holes in the house’s walls, into bathrooms and bedrooms where he sees the desiring, lonely, threatened lives of his family: his mother, grief-struck and missing her husband Sam; his Dad, comatose, on the brink between life and death; his sister, Tegwyn, self-harming, promiscuous; Gramma, locked in dementia, and snoring; and Henry Warburton, the stranger who comes, in all his brokenness, to help, and to convert the family.

Outside the house – in the bush, down by the creek, with the chooks in the yard – Ort experiences a watching, brooding presence he cannot describe, but knows to be real. It is a force embodied in the cloud hovering above the house, in the stars and moon, in the beauty and ordinariness of the bush, in the strangeness of other people. It seems to be a presence neither malevolent nor benevolent, but Ort’s sensual experiences of it prepare him for the message from the stranger who comes to their door (Henry Warburton, injured preacher). Henry finally plucks up the courage to announce to the family that it is ‘God’ who hovers in everything, who watches over and cares for him and his family. Ort’s innocent openness allows him to receive the declarations Henry makes:

‘God told me to come to you’.

‘Who’s God?’

‘Ort, be quiet …’.

‘God is who made us and made the birds and the trees and everything. He keeps everything going, He sees all things. He is our father. He loves us’.

‘I thought it was just a word. Like heck. Is he someone? Mum?’

‘I never really thought about it, Ort … I, I …’.

‘So what did he send you here for?’ I ask Henry Warburton.

‘To love you’.

Tegwyn groans. ‘I thought you said you were alright’. [to Henry]

‘Did you get our names from God?’ I ask him. ‘How did you know our names? You knew all our names, and you knew about Dad’. (88)

The novel’s theology is alive with humour and with Ort’s openness, if not naivety. Mother and son are persuaded by the stranger to give ‘God’ a go, although teenage Tegwyn is a harder nut, sceptical, infused with sexual more than metaphysical needs. Ort is particularly intrigued with the promise of being known, named, understood. This openness rings true psychologically, for Ort is a vulnerable twelve year old who is being confronted with the possible death of his father, a figure who has been completely benign and loving in his son’s life. Alice, his mother, is equally child-like in many ways, loving, trusting, unused to asking metaphysical questions: ‘I never really thought about it, Ort’. This is, clearly, a world before Google, before social media, where information, authority and knowledge have different parameters.

And so, the household receives another pair of eyes, another watcher, into its midst – Henry and his message – through need and trauma. Winton is rarely judgemental of the watchers and their objects of desire. All are whirled in a dance of fear and longing, a need for certainty when none is available. Alice and Ort find some comfort in the evangelist’s definitive theology and practical compassion, clutching for reassurance. Their baptism, acceptance of daily bible readings and communion lead to the wonderful (horrifying!), parodic account of the fundamentalist church just down the road, towards the end of the book. The haplessness of Alice and Ort’s one-time visit to the church at the back of the Watkins’ drapery store is superbly rendered, as Winton satirises a self-righteous, fear-mongering brand of 1960s Christianity. The church service is full of rigidity and surveillance: the mark of the beast, the wrath of God, plagues upon men; a place where ‘everyone in the room is looking at us’, and where the preacher declares in a booming voice: ‘Read the signs! Read-the-signs! The Antichrist himself comes … The-need-is-greatPressing. Urgent. How will we stand in the tribulation?’. Winton creates the jerky stresses and freighted vocabulary of the preacher who condemns the heathen world, a world against which salvation is available for a narrow band of believers. But it is the innocence and intuitiveness of Alice that wins the day. Refusing to succumb to the judging eyes and exclusions of the congregation, she jumps up to leave, pulling Ort with her. Alice declares, in the full force of her outraged innocence:

‘You don’t have to shout. We’re not animals, you know. And not even God’s animals should be shouted at like they’re made of mud’. (126)

Simmering in the background of the narrative, across these events, is the presence of the father, Sam, comatose, hovering between life and death, watched over by Alice, Ort, Tegwyn and Henry Warburton. There is never any doubt that all the family, and the stranger, unconditionally love and watch over Sam who seems to see nothing, staring vacantly as they feed, bathe and talk to Sam, taking him for walks in the wheelchair.

The novel draws rapidly to a climax. Against all this festival of watching and being watched, the characters and the readers are drawn inexorably to a scene, narrated by Ort, that resolves nothing, finally, but that points towards new possibilities:

Everywhere, in through all my looking places and all the places I never even thought of – under the doors, up through the boards – that beautiful cloud creeps in. This house is filling with light and crazy music and suddenly I know what’s going to happen and it’s like the whole flaming world’s suddenly making sense … [I] burst into Mum’s room and there’s my Dad with these tears coming down his cheeks, pinpoints of light that hurt me eyes … His eyes are open and they’re on me and smiling as I come in shouting ‘God! God! God!’ His face is shining. I’m shaking all over. ‘God! God! God!’ (150)

Ort’s eyes are opened – ‘the whole flaming world … suddenly making sense’. His father’s eyes are open, and expressive for the first time. And ‘that beautiful cloud’ has moved from symbolic, ambivalent presence to a sensuous, infiltrating, clarifying atmosphere, bringing father and son to a crucial moment of … resurrection? Renewal? Clear-sightedness?

The reader is left in a place that is not certainty, but something is coming to a climax. Ort’s innocent expectations are turning to action, and images of eyes, seeing, tears, ‘pinpoints of light’ predominate in the final scene. Ort says his father’s eyes are ‘on me and smiling’, and miracle, or at least a change, is happening. Certainly Ort – full of hope and love – is expecting miracle.

So what does That Eye the Sky offer readers, when we reflect on the phenomena of watching and being watched? God had been unknown to Ort – ‘I thought it was just a word. Like heck. Is he someone? Mum?’ But the child entering into early manhood has also long intuited, in the natural world and in his family relations, a presence that ‘keeps everything going … [who] sees all things’. As the child literally takes to heart the biblical injunction to anoint with oil and pray for the ill, he grabs the safflower oil and the big black family bible, believing, hoping, seeing what he so desperately needs to see, his father, eyes open and smiling at him; light and music filling this house of trauma; the whole world suddenly making sense. For this climactic moment, and possibly into the unwritten future, that watching eye is powerful, intervening and benevolent.

[Reposted, with edits, from Ethos.]

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Lyn McCredden is Professor of Australian Literary Studies at Deakin University, Australia. She is the author of Intimate Horizons: the Post-colonial Sacred in Australian Literature (with Bill Ashcroft and Frances Devlin-Glass, 2009), Luminous Moments: the Contemporary Sacred (2010), The Fiction of Tim Winton: Earthed and Sacred (2017), and a poetry collection, Wanting Only (2018). She LIVES AND PLAYS ON WURUNDJERI LAND.

Reading the Magnificat in Australia: Unsettling Engagements. An invitation to a book launch.

Readers of Art/s and Theology Australia are invited to the launch of a new book by Dr Anne Elvey, called Reading the Magnificat in Australia: Unsettling Engagements. The launch will take place via Zoom on Monday 14 December 2020, at 7.30pm (AEST).

Please email Anne directly if you would like to be added to the list to receive the Zoom link nearer to the day.

Further details below.

Kindness stories in the modern spiritual mode

tender.jpgEvery generation throws up popular reflection on how best to live. Much of it comes from within religious traditions. It is designed to help people reflect on their lives by building bridges between religious traditions and the world in which the reader lives. It is instructive to note how its style and emphases vary with changes in the religious and broader culture.

Julie Perrin‘s recent book Tender, a collection of short reflections, grouped thematically, is splendid in its own right. It is spare and elegant in its writing, inclusive in its address and open-ended in its invitation to reflection. It also offers an occasion to reflect on the ways in which spiritual writing has changed.

Seventy years ago much spiritual writing was based in the language, ritual practices and shared faith of religious communities. Readers outside the community would normally feel themselves made outsiders. A reader wandering along shelves of spiritual books would look first for their denominational origin to see if they were Anglican, say, or Catholic. If readers drew on their own experience or on contemporary news, they usually did so simply to illustrate a point already made conceptually.

Fifty years ago many churches were becoming less tribal, ascription to faith was less certain, and people looked to a range of authorities when seeking wisdom. Though spiritual writers generally worked within a particular tradition, they also drew on other Christian and religious traditions and appealed to psychology and other secular sources. The writing was often exploratory rather than didactic. Readers measured it, not by its denominational solidity, but by its spiritual depth.

Today another genre coexists with those earlier ones. In it, writers with a strong and questioning faith address a general audience, using anecdotes, inherited wisdom, contemporary social debates and a broad cultural reference to encourage their readers to move beyond inherited prejudice and ask themselves what really matters. The heart of the exercise is to find the right words that will disclose the depth in ordinary experience. The writing encourages readers to pay attention to the world around them, to wonder, and to celebrate God’s presence there. Readers evaluate it by the quality of the writing and its attentiveness to the depth of ordinary human experience.

Among writers familiar in Australia who write in this vein are Michael McGirr, Terry Monagle, Pádraig Ó Tuama and the much missed Brian Doyle. Their writing does not merely describe but evokes and creates a world, and shapes a human response that respects its variety and mystery. Significantly, too, these writers are masters of short anecdotal pieces which invite us to see the great in the small. They also write fastidiously, choosing words that disclose freshly aspects of reality which the language of traditions conceals at first reading. Following the age-old advice to writers their words don’t merely tell but show.

These qualities are evident in Tender. Even the title is evocative. Not Tenderness, a lovely word, but sometimes tainted with sentimentality, the adjective Tender suggests at once rawness, vulnerability, affection and offering. In the subtitle — stories that lean into kindness — lean intimates the delicacy of an invitation to follow a direction without compulsion. It also suggests the intimacy shown when we lean on another’s shoulder, and perhaps trust that the reader will respond to the gentle invitation. Kindness evokes both generosity and our shared humanity.

The encounters and reflections that compose the book display the same sharp attention to the rawness and pathos of reality and the possibilities of words. Behind the initial detail of description of place, time and ordinary actions, a deeper reality is disclosed that leads to reflection inviting readers to ask themselves what matters. In ‘Bank Teller’, for example, the opening paragraph sets the scene through simple, carefully observed detail:

In Melbourne, I’m walking along Sydney Road, Brunswick, the traffic is stretched bumper to bumper. There is a taxi at the kerb outside the bank. As I enter the foyer through the glass doors a young man is walking towards me. His arm is outstretched as if to make a space ahead of him. With his other arm he is guiding a woman dressed in long flowing robes and hijab.

The succeeding paragraphs fill out the description. The young man is corporately dressed, sharp, but in his attention there is something unexpectedly ‘decorous, almost tender’. The woman’s face is a mass of scarring, with no nose, and she seems to be blinded. As they talk together, ‘he leans his head closer, so he can hear’. The final paragraph sums up the story into which the reader has been drawn and invites them to ponder a larger question:

Human cruelty and human kindness, they sit closely together. The bank teller carved out a space for the scarred woman to walk in. Her presence and energy called something out of him, and from other witnesses to their conversation. What will it take before we can make space on our shores for people who carry their scars less visibly?

In this writing, every word, every punctuation mark, every turn of phrase has been considered in order to draw the reader into the human reality of a simple action, to share the writer’s compassionate regard, and finally to embrace a question that ripples out into widening circles. Our shores can be those of our inner life, our domestic relationships, of our workplace and, evidently, of our nation.

In this book, as in the genre of which it is representative, the writing encourages the readers to draw on their traditions, not as authorities to close conversation but as resources to open it. It displays devotion to the word fleshed out.

Reposted from Eureka Street.

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Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

The Visual Commentary on Scripture

A new and dynamic online resource – The Visual Commentary on Scripture – has recently been launched by a team centred at King’s College London that is providing resources for those interested in the visual interpretation of the Bible, including general readers, scholars, preachers, and study groups. The project draws on diverse scholars in art and religion from around the world and will eventually build a library of up to 1500 commentaries that give a visual insight into the Biblical tradition. Each entry is curated like a small exhibition, and provides three key images that offer visual insight into a given passage. A longer overview is then provided where we both read and see the various insights into the process of understanding the meanings contained in a passage.

The project team is led by theologian Professor Ben Quash of King’s College who here offers a helpful introduction to the value of the project:

This unique project demonstrates the value of the visual arts in expanding our means of understanding, and our response to texts and their interpretation. There are currently over 80 completed commentaries now available on the website.

Professor Ben Quash explains that the project offers three main purposes:

First, it seeks to instruct those with little knowledge of the Bible about its contents. We hope this will be part of the strategic ‘impact’ of this project.

Second, it uses the warrant of the incarnation to affirm that physical sight can be a pathway to spiritual insight.

Third, the VCS aims to refresh viewers and engage their affective responses as well as their intellectual ones, affirming that images are made ‘to be gazed upon, so that we might glorify God and be filled with wonder and zeal’.

The Visual Commentary on Scripture is an exciting development. It is a richly-engaging resource that has been made easily accessible. It will be a valuable resource to students of the Bible, and those who teach and reflect on its ongoing relevance and authority. Bringing the world of the visual arts into this process of interpretation heightens an awareness of the lived experience of the biblical world as well as our own contemporary context. It allows for a renewed valuing of the visual arts as a means of accessing the world of the biblical tradition in conversation with the current horizon of our lives.

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ROD PATTENDEN IS AN ARTIST, ART HISTORIAN, AND THEOLOGIAN INTERESTED IN THE POWER OF IMAGES. HE LIVES AND WORKS ON AWABAKAL LAND.

‘“Jerusalem” was never an alternative to the poetry; it was part of it’. A review of John Newton’s The Double Rainbow: James K. Baxter, Ngāti Hau and the Jerusalem Commune

the-double-rainbow.jpgJohn Newton, The Double Rainbow: James K. Baxter, Ngāti Hau and the Jerusalem Commune (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2009). 224 pages. ISBN: 9780864736031.

John Newton’s engaging book, The Double Rainbow: James K. Baxter, Ngāti Hau and the Jerusalem Commune, examines the Ngāti Hau community that Aotearoa’s best-known poet James K. Baxter was instrumental in establishing at Hiruhārama, on the Whanganui River – ‘the country’s first and most influential experiment in “hippie” communalism’ (p. 38). As Newton notes in his Introduction:

The double rainbow is Baxter’s symbol for a mutually regenerative bicultural relationship. He recognised that the Pākehā majority ignored Māori culture, not just to the cost of Māori … but also to its own detriment. Pākehā, he wrote in 1969, a few months before he first moved to Jerusalem, ‘have lived alongside a psychologically rich and varied minority culture for a hundred years and have taken nothing from it but a few place-names and a great deal of plunder’. Pākehā culture’s material dominance was accompanied by an arrogance and ethnocentrism which left it spiritually impoverished.

He cites Baxter:

‘Ko te Maori te tuakna. Ko te Pakeha te teina …’ The Maori [sic] is indeed the elder brother and the Pakeha [sic] the younger brother. But the teina has refused to learn from the tuakana. He has sat sullenly among his machines and account books, and wondered why his soul was full of bitter dust …

And then offers the following commentary:

The cost was everywhere to be seen, but nowhere more plainly than among urban youth. For Baxter, their wholesale disaffection was a realistic verdict on the society they had inherited, a mainstream culture whose spiritlessness and meanness – to say nothing of its arrogance towards its neighbours – deserved no better. In the Māori world, by contrast, and particularly in Māori communalism, he believed he could see an alternative to this atomised majority culture – a system of values that answered to the longings and frustrations that he recognised, both in himself and in the young people around him. To establish an alternative Pākehā community that could ‘learn from the Maori side of the fence’ was to help restore, symbolically, the mana of the tangata whenua and to begin to resuscitate a Pākehā culture that was choking to death on its own materialism. (pp. 11–12)

Such constitutes the earth from which a functioning intentional community at Hiruhārama budded, a community made up largely of those for whom mainstream Aotearoan society meant fatherlessness.

While concerned to not diminish Baxter’s part in the formation of the Ngā Mōkai community but rather to place it in the context of a larger ‘utopian experiment’ (p. 88) he initiated, Newton seeks to ‘offer a stronger account of what Baxter achieved at Jerusalem by bringing into focus its collaborative dimension’ (p. 16). He properly contends that what the 41-year-old Baxter set in motion, and towards which the baby-boomer ‘orphanage’ of the damaged which was his living poetry bore witness to, was something considerably bigger than Baxter himself, and that the unique cohabitation and set of cultural negotiations which was embodied in the Whanganui River communities (particularly Ngāti Hau, Ngā Mōkai, the church – which was ‘threaded through the life of the river’ (p. 59) – and the Sisters of Compassion) draw attention to implications far beyond both Baxter or to the communities themselves. This, of course, is of the essence of Baxter himself, that before he was a hippie, he was ‘a Catholic, a Christian humanist, and an aspiring Pākehā-Māori’ (p. 36), he was a poet-prophet charged not simply with interpreting the social environment which he inhabited, but of actively improving it, of giving material shape to it. The book is loosely divided into three main sections: an introductory phase that addresses the pre-history of the community and Baxter’s first year of residence; a middle section that covers its heyday; and a downstream phase that describes the community’s various offshoots, and considers its legacy. The result – for the reader prepared to follow the narrative – is the stripping away of ‘cultural safety’.

Newton details further upon what we know of Baxter from other places while eloquently introducing us to a host of other equally-fascinating characters – Father Wiremu Te Awhitu, pā women Dolly, Alice, Lizzie, and Wehe (who are often remembered as ‘substitute’ mothers (p. 89)), Aggie Nahona, and Denis O’Reilly among them. He also highlights Baxter’s visionary kinship with French-born nun Marie Henriette Suzanne Aubert with whom he shared ‘a staunch commitment to Māori, and to spiritual love as the first principle of a hands-on social mission’ (p. 45). Newton argues that this part of Baxter’s history ‘doesn’t get acknowledged in Baxter’s rhetorical point-scoring at the expense of the mainstream church. Without it, however, his own Jerusalem “orphanage” would never have eventuated. In one sense the debt is symbolic or poetic: the presence of the church at Jerusalem draws te taha Māori into dialogue with the other key spiritual driver of his later career, namely his Catholic faith … Baxter brought his showmanship, and his personal (some might argue, narcissistic) sense of mission. But he also brought with him – embodied, or enacted – the self-interrogation and social radicalisation that had seized hold of the Catholic Church globally in the wake of Vatican II. After the Berrigans and the draft card burnings, after liberation theology, what did the Christian mission imply in the context of ongoing colonial injustice?’ (pp. 46, 47).

Jerusalem was Baxter’s riposte to all those Pākehā institutions – the churches, the university, the nuclear family and so on – whose lack of heart and small-minded materialism were now failing Pākehā youth in the same way that Pākehā culture had always failed Maori. In looking for a remedy for the failings of Pākehā society, he found his prime inspiration in the communitarian virtues that he saw among Māori: aroha, mahi, kōrero, manuhiritanga. This was ‘learn[ingJ from the Maori side of the fence’: his community was to be modelled on the marae. Of course, in offering this open door the commune depended entirely on the hospitality of Ngāti Hau … But the commune was not just a place to live – a material shelter for whomever happened to be there … it was also a piece of political theatre. And the commune’s significance as a political intervention depended for its fullest expression on publicity: it was intended, at least in part, to be a spectacle, a City on a Hill! At the same time, it was integral to the kaupapa that it be open to all comers. This was the paradox that Baxter was confronted by: the more effectively this vision was communicated, the more would it lead to a pressure of numbers that would overwhelm the commune’s own capacity to provide for itself, and which eventually must wear out the patience of the local community. (p. 65)

Yet Newton is at pains to point out throughout his study that Hiruhārama is bigger than Baxter. Indeed, the bulk of the book is given to defending and illustrating this thesis, that Hiruhārama after Baxter entered into a period of unforeseen maturity, and particularly the maturity of its relationship with the pā. Community life under Greg Chalmers’ leadership may have been less eventful, but those years from 1972 do more to fulfil Baxter’s hopes of regenerative partnerships than those prior.

Two chapters are concerned with articulating the events birthed following the final closure of the community at Hiruhārama, and to highlighting that while a distinctive phase of the Ngā Mōkai narrative had reached its end, its impulse didn’t die with the community itself. Newton draws attention to a network of loosely affiliated houses – from flats and private homes, to crashpads and urban shelters, to far-flung intentional communities – which functioned as homes-away-from-home for a diasporic Ngā Mōkai whānau, a ‘network of initiatives which imported the Jerusalem kaupapa back into urban contexts’ (p. 154), and there ‘offering a dispersed community the chance of reconnection, reaffirmation and renewal’ (p. 164). He recalls Hiruhārama’s various germinations at Reef Point, Wharemanuka, and Whenuakura. ‘With the shutting of the original commune, these “shoots of the kumara vine” [became] the focus of the Ngā Mōkai story. It’s here, in this ramshackle archipelago, that those who had been touched by Jerusalem attempted to keep alive the kaupapa’ (p. 131).

The penultimate chapter, ‘Baxter’s Wake’, re-spotlights Baxter, and is given to argue that Baxter’s literary legacy and his social legacy are ‘shoots of the same vine’ (p. 169):

‘Jerusalem’ was never an alternative to the poetry; it was part of it, its logical destination, even its most vivid accomplishment. In his burial on the river we find Baxter the poet and the Baxter the activist inextricably entwined. This integration was precisely his ambition, and the fact he achieved it is what makes these events still resonate. (p. 171)

So Newton appropriately accentuates Baxter’s formulation of the poet’s ethical task to be no mere interpreter of society but one who endeavours to make society more just: ‘It is this sense of embodied ethics … which leaps into focus when we think about Jerusalem’ (p. 179).

The Double Rainbow is the fruit of an incredibly-impressive amount of extensive and laborious research. Newton commendably resists romanticising Baxter, Baxter’s vision, or the Ngāti Hau ‘classroom’ itself. Those engaged in Baxter’s work and who want to better understand his Jerusalem Daybook or who are interested in his biography, those seeking to understand, assess, and inform Aotearoa’s multi-cultural, historical, and spiritual landscape, those wanting to listen and to speak intelligently into contemporary debates about the relationship between government authorities and badge-wearing gangs carving out their own neo-tribal identity, and, more broadly, to a nation fascinated with re-carving a new national identity which buries settler mono-culturalism in its wake, and those devoted to the challenging work of inspiring, creating, leading, building, replanting, and closing local and grassroots communities will be well-served to have Newton’s essay in hand. An invaluable and timely record, it is also certain to inform, impress and inspire.

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JASON GORONCY IS A THEOLOGIAN, ARTIST, AND TRY-HARD POET WHO LIVES AND PLAYS ON WURUNDJERI LAND.

Reading: a shortcut to compassion

Testament.jpeg

You could argue that the most important value in life is compassion. You could also argue that the most painless way of growing compassion is by reading other people’s stories.

An ancient copy of Testament of Youth, the 1933 best-seller by Vera Brittain, has sat on my bookshelf for decades, surviving any number of culls of varying degrees of brutality, maybe because I knew at some level that this was a classic that I really should read one day. But it wasn’t until my interest had been sparked by seeing the latest movie version of this tale that I got around to picking it up.

This memoir of the years between 1914 and 1925, the decade containing World War I, cannot be rushed. It was written in an era when, harsh and full as life was, a writer seemed to have all the time in the world to explain things in great detail. It’s not for one minute boring, it just takes a while to read it.

Brittain tells the story of her harrowing war experience. A bright young woman who fought fiercely for the right to attend Oxford, her sheltered upper-middle-class English world was thrown into chaos by the war. All the people she was close to were killed and she worked for years as a highly capable VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) nurse in various wartime hospitals, including right behind the front lines in France.

Brittain went on to become a well-known novelist, poet, and public speaker; feminism and pacifism were the causes dear to her heart. She belonged to that generation that believed, for a little while, that they could shape the world so that it learnt the lessons of the ‘War to end all Wars’ which turned out, of course, to be nothing of the sort. At the end of the book, she laments the fact that more horrific conflict is on the horizon, that her children will be exposed to carnage of the sort she hoped to never witness again.

Brittain grew up at the end of the Victorian period, in a world of extraordinary privilege. Reading accounts of such lives, I always marvel at the leisure and boredom of the existence of comfortably off women whose job was simply to organise servants and go visiting. I look at my life and that of my peers, both women and men – we hold down jobs, bring up children, run households and fulfil community commitments without any assistance from servants whatsoever. Not that I would swap – Brittain’s struggle was largely one to escape precisely such a set up.

Nothing enables me to live in worlds other than my own more than good writing. Brittain’s devastation as one after another of her beloved peers are killed is heart-rending. She talks about her ‘doomed generation’, and they were. I cannot begin to imagine the weight of grief upon grief that most people suffered in those years, although several contemporary situations compare – families of asylum seekers the world over, certain Indigenous communities, nations like Syria and the Sudan in an ongoing state of conflict. I belong to a generation who has never had to live through war. My parents’ generation, on the other hand, lived not only a through war but through six long years of the terror of fearing that barbarism might well take over the world. We live in complicated times, with pressures our forebears cannot imagine, and the threat of global-warming is the greatest our planet and our race has ever known, but I cannot begin to imagine the sheer courage that women and men living through a war needed simply to get up each morning and face what had to be faced.

Testament of Youth is refreshing because it is a women’s war book, so, to this reader is infinitely more interesting than the many war tales penned by men. The experiences of women at home, making do despite war time shortages and waiting for the dreaded telegram that would tell them of the death of their husband/lover/father/brother/son are way beyond anything I have had to endure. The lives of nurses on the front lines were inhumanely exhausting and distressing as they dealt with daily carnage without benefit of much in the way of medical supplies or even clean water.

Another striking thing in this long tale is the very different style of relationships young people engaged in and the way letters formed the basis of how they became close. Brittain falls deeply in love with a young man and they become engaged, but they have only had a dozen or so times actually together, most of these accompanied by a chaperone. But the letters they wrote, sometimes several a week! A large part of her book consists of quotes from letters to and from her parents, her adored brother and her fiancé. They are long, poetic, honest, deep, philosophical, yearning. There was time to write this way, back then, war notwithstanding. Her brother Edward regularly scribbled pencilled notes from the trenches that made their way safely to his family; at one point he complains that it takes a day and a half for his letters to travel from the front line in France to his family in London. Australia Post eat your heart out!

They poured out their very souls in these letters, in a way that I suspect contemporary lovers rarely do with their instant messaging and their moving in together five minutes after they ‘hook up’. The sheer longing for each other in these epistles is a world away from the instant gratification we have come to expect in everything, including sex. I’m not wishing myself back there exactly – I do wonder how marriages panned out when these heightened times were over and a couple had to settle down to jobs and housework and the daily irritations that are a part of a long love. But the contrast with current practices is staggering.

Testament of Youth is a long, slow read, so exquisitely written that I wanted to savour every page. I loved Brittain’s acerbic humour and her fierce, unapologetic feminism (impressively, even after marriage, she kept the name of her family or origin) which is captured in such passages as this one, which litter the volume:

…all girls’ clothing of the period appeared to be designed by their elders on the assumption that decency consisted in leaving exposed to the sun and air no part of the human body that could possibly be covered in flannel. In these later days, when I lie lazily sunning myself in a mere gesture of a bathing suit on the gay plage of some small Riviera town – or even, during a clement summer, on the ultra-respectable shores of southern England – and watch the lean brown bodies of girl-children, almost naked and completely unashamed, leaping in and out of the water, I am seized with an angry resentment against the conventions of twenty years ago, which wrapped up my comely adolescent body in woollen combinations, bulky cashmere stockings, ‘liberty’ bodice, dark stockinette knickers, flannel petticoat and often, in addition, a long-sleeved, high-necked, knitted woollen ‘spencer’.

They don’t write like that anymore.

Reading Testament of Youth powerfully strengthened my conviction that entering another’s world, by engaging deeply with stories not our own, brings a compassion, sympathy, learning, and wonder more effectively than just about anything else. If Hitler had read The Diary of Anne Frank. If Trump could read – really read – the stories of people desperately fleeing across the Mexican border. If Peter Dutton could immerse himself in a book written by an asylum seeker. If Scott Morrison could get into a story of someone who has never had quite enough money to buy their kids shoes or go on a decent holiday. If Harvey Weinstein could read a book about a woman who has been sexually exploited. If we could, all of us, read and weep, read and resolve to never let carnage and abuse happen again, read and feel compassion for our planet and its people. Read.

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Clare Boyd-Macrae is a Melbourne writer and editor. She lives and works on Wurundjeri land.

Prayers of a Secular World: A Review

Prayers_FC_HR1Prayers of a Secular World. Edited by Jordie Albiston and Kevin Brophy; introduction by David Tacey. Carlton South: Inkerman & Blunt, 2015. 160pp, ISBN: 978-0-9875401-9-5

Way back in 2015, so three Prime Ministers ago, Inkerman and Blunt published a new anthology of work, a beautiful little book by an impressive range of some 80 mostly-Antipodean poets, some very well known, others hardly at all. The collection, Prayers of a Secular World, was edited by Melbourne poets Jordie Albiston and Kevin Brophy, and is introduced, fittingly so, with a brief essay by David Tacey on the religious nature of secularism. The latter helps to orient the reader to some of the terrain they are about to enter.

In their call for submissions, the editors said that they were ‘looking for poems of wonder and celebration, poems that mark the cycle of the day – dawn, midday, evening, night – the seasons, the progression of planets, the evolution of weather; poems of becoming – first steps, first words, transitions, epiphanies and inspirations; poems of belief and of doubt, pleas for protection, poems of remembrance and blessing, of forgiveness and redemption, poems of gratitude’. Short of the sternest editorial policing, such an invitation almost guarantees, more than most edited collections I think, the kind of hotchpotch smorgasbord of aptitude evident in the volume’s final form. Still.

The book’s title – which echoes Donna Ward’s claim, in Australian Love Poems, that ‘poems are prayers of the secular world’ – appears, at first glance, to promote the somewhat late-Victorian idea that poets are the new priests. But the pages therein are marked by a welcome avoidance of such presumption, their words occupied with patterns of time and of place, of dying and of encountering the world anew, and with the sounds of landscapes mostly suburban, where the majority of its readers, no doubt, dwell and pass through. In a review published in The Australian, Geoff Page noted of the title: ‘They are certainly not be [sic] “prayers” in the intercessory sense but they are contemplative and very likely to widen and diversify the metaphysical sensibilities of all but the most hardened of fundamentalists – who, no doubt, already have their own (more limited) rewards in view’. This is a point worth repeating, especially perhaps for those uncomfortable, in Tacey’s words, with the notion that ‘the transcendent doesn’t happen elsewhere, apart from the world, but is a dimension of the world’. Still, the publisher’s description of the book as ‘a meditation on living in a post-religious world’ strikes me as very odd – odd not only as a sketch of the book’s content, but also odd in terms of its assessment of things. Observers of the cultural landscape of our day might well inquire what world exactly is being spoken of here.

There is, for many, the perennial temptation to will oneself into a kind of authenticity. Such efforts are an expression of a romanticism that either refuses or forgets to weave into the solidest realities a knowledge of its loss. The result is, as the poet Christian Wiman has observed, a ‘soft nostalgia’. There are here, happily, a good number of notable exceptions to what might otherwise be merely another unwelcome example of such, of groping disorientated by a handful of tamed Emersonian ghosts trying to iron out the highs and lows of life apparently naïve to the view that our being of dust does not equate to an uncritical defence of some pathetic form of natural theology. In this volume, poems by Chris Wallace-Crabbe, Andrew Lansdown, Fiona Wright, Robyn Rowland, Debi Hamilton, Ron Pretty, Anne Elvey, Michelle Cahill, and David Brooks, for example, serve this end particularly well. So do, I think, these two contributions:

‘Da Barri Barri Bullet Train’, by The Diwurruwurru Poetry Club with Mista Phillip

we bin get up with mista an habim gooda one feed
we bin jumpin da mudika
an millad bin go lunga bush
mimi an kukudi bin come too
an dey bin singim kujika
dey bin learnim us mob
for sing im kujika
we likim learn for sing us mob kujika
wen us mob bin lyin down in da darkes
darkest night I bin look da barri barri
e bin movin really really like da bullet train
I bin hold ma mimi really tight
da fire us mob bin make next ta millad mob
poking tongue like a big one king brown
an millad mob listen noise one side na water
must e bin da buffalo drinkin water
den us bin listen da croc bin snap da buffalo
da gnabia out there too
an he bin make us mob so frightn
but ma mimi bin sing out
hey you mob stop all da noise
ma mimi bin start to sing
da song na us mob country
sing in da old language
dem old people did sing
an make millad mob so shiny an strong
an I bin lyin da listen na mimi
I bin feel really really safe
den I musta bin go sleep

And

‘Eucalyptus Regnans’, by Meredi Ortega

for Brandi

that was some fiery trajectory you took, moving to Kinglake
to be among giants and clouds
I recall you dying once before
…….. .. run down at the crossing, going home for lunch

but you’re on Yea oval, among the nightied and discalceate
and you’re okay
road posts gone
all delineators and signs, the way forward and way back
…….. ..only black stags, ash deafening

one charred fence post
and your old weatherboard like a kind of gloating, it falls to you
…….. ..to be the lucky one
better to believe in regnans than luck, they have what it takes
martyrdom, lofty sentiments
…….. ..all crown and nimbus and resurrection

up on the mountain, no one knows if lyrebirds
are mimicking silence
…….. ..volunteers go into the wasteland, leave songs out
musk and fern and siltstone tunes

it rains and then some
…….. ..and the green is giddying
stags wash white, their millioned saplings serry
…….. ..knit roots, squeeze out the other then each other
ashes move up the escarpment and up
to the yellow-raddled cockatoo, yellow-eyed currawong, to the sun
and you are in the very dawn of things

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Jason Goroncy is a theologian, artist, and try-hard poet who lives and plays on Wurundjeri land.