From many Aboriginal elders, such as Tjangika Napaltjani, Bob Williams and Djiniyini Gondarra, to painters, such as Arthur Boyd, Pro Hart and John Forrester-Clack, from historians, such as Manning Clark, and poets, such as Maureen Watson, Francis Webb and Henry Lawson, to celebrated novelists, such as Joseph Furphy, Patrick White and Tim Winton, the figure of Jesus has occupied an endearing and idiosyncratic place in the Australian imagination. It is evidence enough that ‘Australians have been anticlerical and antichurch, but rarely antiJesus’ (Stuart Piggin). But which Jesus? In what follows, I seek to listen to what some Australians make of Jesus, and to consider some theological implications of their contributions for the enduring quest for an Australian Jesus.
The story of the Good Samaritan is a familiar one, so much so that its very mention tends to celebrate a comfortable kind of religion as listeners reassure themselves of their place in the story. We should be reminded that in its original context it was a story that was utterly shocking to its first hearers. It dramatically crossed boundaries that were simply inconceivable for those listening. If this parable had been taken seriously, it would have upended cultural and religious conventions that had been carefully policed and reinforced. It is a story that has drawn many artists to re-invigorate in fresh ways both its attraction and its threat. For artist and priest Bob Booth it is a story worth the effort of exploring its potential to upset allegiances and to re-examine values and ethical actions in the contemporary world we inhabit.
Booth takes us into the drama of the story by placing the viewer just above the action, taking in the injured figure, helper and the passers-by. The composition allows our eye to sweep around the scene taking in both human actors and the compressed space of the landscape. Our eye comes to rest, after making this aerial survey, firstly on the hand of the fallen man and then to the hand of the ‘Samaritan’ with a finger decidedly pointing in our direction. We are drawn in, complicit, involved viewers, who are close enough to lend a hand and yet remaining fixed outside the picture plane. It is both a simple and yet complex composition that has been carefully crafted to include us in its sweep. The brush strokes and coloration serve to heighten its dramatic focus and its sensual textured surface emphasises a tender and compassionate moment. This painterly seduction only heightens the tension the viewer feels about a decision on whether to get involved.
The fallen man is somewhat reminiscent of a Christ figure, partly naked with a white cloth over his legs. What is utterly unfamiliar is the facial features of the helper and the skull cap that marks him out as a follower of Islam. Muslim men will often wear the white Taqiyah (Arabic for skull cap) as a sign of respect. This is worn especially during the five periods of prayers required each day. Bob Booth comments: ‘Had the parable of the Good Samaritan been presented in Australia today, I think that there would have been every chance that a Muslim would have taken the title role. I sometimes wonder how we manage to read this parable in church without causing a riot!’ The shock of this painting is appropriate to its original intentions to cross over the sharp divide of social enmity found between Jews and Samaritans. While they shared common ancient traditions, they were passionately divergent about the physical location of the most holy place to worship. Such enmity is echoed in contemporary ways as we have witnessed the terrible acts of violence in New Zealand and then in Sri Lanka during the first half of this year.
Underlying the disturbing shock of this story of hospitality and compassion is the boundary-breaking words and actions of Jesus in upsetting the religious conventions of his day. In the material actions of touching the untouchables, speaking to women in public, challenging religious leaders, breaking the Sabbath, feasting rather than fasting, Jesus enacts a more passionate and generous vision of who God might be. Bob Booth takes this as evidence that Jesus had his eye not on the rules and regulations of religious formalism but on something completely in opposition to such strictures. ‘It seems to me that Jesus was intoxicated with an audacious thought of goodness and beauty, a joy that was set before him for which he would endure anything’. This familiar story is therefore not so much about kindness or the virtues of middle-class niceness, but rather a way of seeing other human beings as being made in the image of God. It is in the encounter with strangers, or even perhaps with enemies, that we find our heart expanded and we see the possibilities of God’s grace at work in the world.
This striking image of an airborne Christ is from New Zealand painter Brett a’Court. It is part of his investigation into a way of bringing together the spiritual insights of the indigenous culture of the Māori people and that of Christianity brought to New Zealand by British settlers. In cultural terms, it is a hybrid image. This is something that occurs when two cultures are in a process of mutual re-assessment. That sort of conversation is full of conflict and critique but also allows for the potential for new forms to arise that express the best of both traditions. A Christ figure flying in the sky like a kite is such a form. It is a new thing, a potential heresy or aberration, but one full of potential for new insight and spiritual refreshment.
Christianity has expanded over recent centuries into a world religion, bringing with it European visual forms. At times these have been part of the conquering ideology as European colonial expansion has repressed the cultures of indigenous peoples seeing them as backward, pagan, or even demonic. As a result, objects were destroyed or burnt, cultural practices repressed or forbidden, and mythic narratives banned. In its place peoples were Christianised, therefore ‘civilised’, and presented in newly-minted European clothes and behaviours. Now, in this current post-colonial period, there has been a recognition of the violence done to people through denying them their own culture. In New Zealand since the 1980s, there has been a revival of traditional indigenous forms. New Zealand now seeks to be a bi-cultural nation, using forms from both traditions to mark out its national life. This hybrid Jesus, therefore, speaks to this new period of cultural re-formation offering new possibilities in deepening spirituality that arises from within this complex and newly emerging situation.
The ‘Manu-Kahu’ in Maori culture refers to the harrier hawk, a bird associated with being a spiritual connection to the divine. It also refers to the cultural practice of making kites, which was not only a common recreational practice but also a religious one as massive large-scale kites were produced for significant ritual occasions. These could carry the weight of a human person and were flown with up to a kilometre of rope to therefore command vast terrains in their ritual role. These kites ‘evoked the supernatural powers indicative of the Māori life force and associations with animals, birds, and the dream of flight. Used as communication devices to their gods, Māori kites became a link with the great natural powers which ruled their life’ (John Tarlton, ‘Ancient Maori Kites’, Art New Zealand, December, 1976). For the artist, this provides an appropriate link to the cultural place of the Christ figure who holds the land with benevolence and grace. It is also a visual statement of confidence in Christian spirituality as a relevant force in contemporary society, particularly during this period of post-colonial reformation.
Brett a’Court has created something new. It is a surprising innovation and unsettles traditional iconographical conventions. It disturbs expectations and could therefore be considered a threat to correct theological form. It also dislodges the colonial mentality that considers the European way of seeing things to be the correct and authoritative one. It is also something curious and worthy of consideration – a Christ figure in flight, who brings together belief and the physical environment in which people live. This is a thoroughly-contextual Christ for New Zealand, the land where birds have become the dominant species. This is a Christ at home in this particular cultural landscape. This is not an introduced species carrying an exotic spirituality. This is Christ at home in the physical landscape of the Pacific. A’Court shows his respect for the great innovative New Zealand painter Colin McCahon by using the device of speech bubbles echoing biblical quotes, which were part of McCahon’s innovative and hybrid response to colonialism. For viewers further afield, this work serves to expand our sense of encounter with a God at home in the world, an incarnation that honours the material world we inhabit, a Christ both particular and universal, both newly strange and safely familiar.
ROD PATTENDENIS AN ARTIST, ART HISTORIAN, AND THEOLOGIAN INTERESTED IN THE POWER OF IMAGES. HE LIVES AND WORKS ON AWABAKAL LAND.
Brett A’Court is a New Zealand painter who has been active since 1995 holding a series of successful exhibitions in his home country. His work draws on popular and historical fragments to explore issues of spirituality and meaning. He is interested to explore this in the context of the bi-cultural nature of New Zealand/Aoterora, ‘dissecting the imagery to unveil the light within, aware also of my place in Aoterora, soaked in Māori and Christian spirituality’.
You are invited to join us on Tuesday August 6th @ Whitley College to share with Anne Mallaby and Libby Byrne in a material conversation about the way art prompts us to make sense of the nature of things we encounter in the creative process.
The exhibition features selected works from my inquiry into nature of transcendence and joy in ordinary time. Funded by a Field Development grant from the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, this work identified how the experience of drawing in-church each week through ordinary time extended my capacity to see the effects of God’s action in the world, just as the work of art itself was to drawing-in (the) church, transforming our collective capacity to see.
The process revealed the participatory nature of the creative process, engaging people who saw and heard me working in conversation that focussed our attention on one another and on the possibility of something that was still becoming. The conversation will continue to unfold on Tuesday August 6th as together explore some of the ways in which the discipline of regularly seeing and making art can prompt us to engage the stories of our lives with the work of meaning-making and the art of well-being.
LIBBY BYRNE IS AN HONORARY RESEARCH ASSOCIATE (WHITLEY, UD), LECTURER IN ART THERAPY (LA TROBE UNIVERSITY), AND MEMBER OF THE CENTRE FOR RESEARCH AND SOCIAL POLICY (RASP). SHE LIVES ON WURUNDJERI LAND.
Here, Idris Murphy introduces us to his upcoming exhibition of paintings – a luminous mystical response to the stark presence of the desert landscape, a meditation that invites theological and philosophical responses to the mystery we feel in a sense of place.
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.
ROD PATTENDENIS AN ARTIST, ART HISTORIAN, AND THEOLOGIAN INTERESTED IN THE POWER OF IMAGES. HE LIVES AND WORKS ON AWABAKAL LAND.
I had seen an exhibition of the New Zealand artist Colin McCahon in which he featured the Franciscan Stations of the Cross. I knew nothing of that tradition, and one Easter, as an Easter discipline for myself, I decided to ‘pray’ the Stations of the Cross by painting my own series. It dawned on me, slowly, that this exercise was an existential prayer. How do we live when we know that we are mortal? How do we live when we know that we are finite? How do we live when we experience suffering?
That led us in 2007, at St Ives Uniting Church in suburban Sydney, to try something new. We invited 15 leading artists to participate in an exhibition. Each would be allocated a different station, randomly, and would have 9 months to work on a response. I wrote a ‘pastorally informed’ commentary on each of the traditional Franciscan stations (14 plus ‘resurrection’), and that commentary became the brief for the artist. I tell artist’s that I am not looking for illustration of the story; more, I am looking for their engagement with the questions the station raises for them.
We have been doing it ever since. After I retired, we decided to do it at Northmead, where the church works with the Creative and Performing Arts High School, and we have shown the work at ACU Strathfield and at the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture in Canberra.
When I approach artists, I ask them not because they are religious or not religious, Christian or not Christian; I ask them because they are good artists who have the capacity to address significant existential questions through their art.
Each year when I receive the works for the exhibition, I am excited by the artist’s integrity, and their capacity to give us works that reflect the deep questions of being. My background is as a pastoral theologian, and I see lived experience as primary text for theological reflection.
Each year we have large numbers of people walk through the exhibition as part of their Easter discipline, or ‘just out of interest’. Always, people are deeply moved; it is not unusual to see people with tears running down their faces, or, to hear them say, ‘I can identify with that’.
Last year, a teacher at a local Catholic Primary School taught a special unit to her grade 5–6 class on religious art through the first semester. She had one of the artists address her class at school, and brought 47 kids who pressed their noses against the art works, and who listened and looked with engaged interest. They went back to school and made their own ‘religious’ art works, and later had a wonderful exhibition of them. This year, that teacher will bring the staff of the school for a staff meeting at the exhibition and they have asked for a talking tour of the work.
We now have a number of events associated with the exhibition: the formal opening, a wine and cheese night, a jazz night, a Good Friday service, a grief workshop, a number of guided tours, the moderator of the UCA will offer a retreat for ministers and key leaders, and, most especially, an Eremos led a quiet half day. Our hope is to build the idea of groups of people making an Easter pilgrimage in which they might walk the way of the cross where there is a contemporary reading of Jesus walk.
You can access the catalogue here. The catalogue includes the commentary or brief given to the artists, images of all the art works, and some comment on the process of making the works by the artists.
Station 11: Jesus is nailed to the cross
Artist: Harrie Fasher
Artist’s comment: I have a spiritual connection to the earth, and find great solace walking and drawing in the landscape. The work I presented for the 11th station, Christ being nailed to the cross, is a steel study of a dead lamb, an Indian offering washed up from the ocean, and a study of feet nailed to the wall. The lamb, soft yet lifeless, represents purity and the earth. I built it in steel, a hard cold material that has been imbued with the properties of life lost. The offering was collected in India for its shape and texture, it holds memory of colour, ritual, and life. And the drawing is a literal representation of the station, feet nailed, produced by the meditative action of looking. Together the three works contemplate what such a sacrifice symbolises in our contemporary society.
Station 9: Jesus Falls the third time
Artist: Blak Douglas
Artist’s comment: So really my knee-jerk response from the outset was to paint a large cross in a landscape filled with Grass Trees (‘Black boys’) yet the cross has been hit by three large spears. Perhaps accompanying words are to the following effect. This piece personifies my lifelong frustration of being wrongfully encouraged to embrace the religion of colonialism and white suppression. From being ‘christened’ Adam Douglas Hill and registered ‘Church of England’, yet being only three generations removed from my tribal Dhungatti peoples. Having to participate in scripture on Tuesday mornings in Primary School or face the cane. Witnessing successive patriarchal governments be sworn in on King George’s bible, feigning honesty, and professing to uphold sound governance on a stolen land. This image – ‘Three strikes & you’re out’ – is metaphoric of how I’d like to see the illegal dominant faith upon this continent fall.
Station 14: Jesus is laid in the tomb
Artist: Jo Braithwaite
Artist’s comment: In this image, I battled to create an image that I hoped would reflect optimism through solidarity.
DOUG PURNELL IS A PASTORAL THEOLOGIAN WHO IN HIS RETIREMENT IS FOCUSING ON A COMMITMENT TO A FULL-TIME STUDIO PRACTICE OF PAINTING THAT EXPLORES THE NATURE OF ABSTRACTION AND MARK MAKING. HE WAS FOR 17 YEARS THE DIRECTOR OF THE BLAKE PRIZE FOR RELIGIOUS ART. HE LIVES AND PAINTS ON GADIGAL LAND.