Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Australia The Movie

My life began in a rural Aussie town not unlike “Faraway Downs”, the mythical outpost in the movie “Australia”. My birth town was Mullewa, an Aboriginal word meaning “place of fog”. Mullewa is a dustbowl of a town, hot as hell and as dry as a dead dingo’s donger (to use a crude Aussie euphemism).When I was born in 1968, Mullewa was still swirling in a fog of racial ignorance. I was born in a two bed hospital. The other bed remained empty, while an Aboriginal baby was born in an outside shed. At least that’s how the family legend rumbles around my memory.

The Aboriginal baby was one of the famous Dingo clan. Ernie Dingo is now one of Australia’s most distinguished actors. I would have liked to see him in “Australia”. I like to think that Ernie’s success is an indication that the fog has partially lifted on Australian race relations. The recent apology to the stolen generation by the newly elected Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, is another indication of progress and healing.

The myth around my rural birth (my family moved back to the city when I was six months old) has always fired my imagination and a sense of justice. It was my nativity story, except unlike Jesus and his family I was the privileged one. There was ample room at the inn for me. There was no hasty escape from a tyrant for me and my family. But then again, I never walked on water either. Hugh Jackman on the other hand……….

It’s the recalling, and retelling of stories that instills a sense of wonder in me. This sense of wonder makes me believe in the strength of the human spirit to overcome adversity and injustice. I imagine the same is true for the people of Darwin. Darwin was named after Charles Darwin who visited the town in 1839. If only they knew then how poignant the name would be. Talk about survival against all odds. Darwin was bombed mercilessly by the Japanese in World War 2. Darwin was then slammed senseless by Cyclone Tracy in 1974. The surviving population was evacuated both times.

Australia is a large place, and Darwin is small and remote. Its survival, let alone its rebirth after tragedy, is itself a miracle of Darwinian proportions. The pub scene in “Australia” after the Japanese attack is profoundly moving. Hugh Jackman, the benevolent “drover” goes into the “whites only” pub with his best friend, an Aborigine named Magarri. He demands that his friend be given a drink. They drink together, and amidst the rubble of a broken town, a small victory of human justice is won.

“Australia” is an important story, and it’s told well. I wish it had been called “Darwin” as this is only a snapshot of Australian life, a play within a play. In any case, I’m thrilled that the rest of the world is invited into the story of Darwin. “Australia” portrays an aspect of the complex triangular relationship between England, a maturing Australia, and the traditional Aboriginal people. Nicole Kidman plays “Lady Ashley” who arrives from England with no clue about life on the land in Darwin. Her eyes are quickly opened to the reality of a young “half-caste” boy named “Nullah”. The police are constantly trying to “steal” Nullah to place him in one of the church run institutions to “breed the black out”.

Stories such as this need to be told, even when the stories are a blurring of fact and fantasy. Half caste kids were still being stolen when I was born in 1968 and into the 1970s. Racism in Australia mirrors racism all over the world, and if awareness and horror are heightened through movies such as “Australia” then they achieve a noble purpose. Ultimately, however, it is the honoring of the human spirit that inspires transformation and justice.

“Australia” offers plenty of that. The droving scene at cliff’s edge is heart stopping. Nullah’s bravery, Dover’s humanity, and Lady Ashley’s determination, are all awesome and inspirational. The scenery is breathtaking, and the desert appears endless. The movie appears endless at times too. But the movie does end, as the desert ends. The Japanese do leave, and people do repopulate Darwin. Racism and hatred do ease, and if nothing else, stories such as this remind me that all things are in constant flux. There is a way of living that rolls with the cyclones, dwells in wonder and offers the type of imagination and determination that helps to lift the fog.

My favorite theme running through the movie is the tension for young Nullah. He is constantly called to the land, feeling the lure of his ancestors. I wonder if it would have been more powerful to keep a veil of mystery over his grandfather, King George, whether he is real, or is an aspect of Nullah’s imagined world. What is real anyway? If I have learnt anything about Aboriginal spirituality, it is the blurring of fact and fantasy, dreaming and waking, present and future.

King George is the sorcerer, the Wizard of Aus, who wants to help Nullah find himself. Maybe Nullah finds himself much like we all do; by seeing all things as mirrors, by realizing that all is part of us and we are part of all that is.

As Joseph Campbell said, "All the gods, all the heavens, all the worlds, are within us." Maybe Nullah had to go walkabout to learn this from the land. Maybe the world needs to retell stories about racism, and cyclones and injustice in order recognize the goodness, the anger and the courage that is within.

Maybe stories such as “Australia” dislodge the screen that shields the Wizard of pretence. When the screen is removed, the truth is revealed. In the words of the Wizard of Oz, “I have been making believe.” Australians, English, Aborigines, Japanese- we are all related. We are kin. We are one at heart. All the divisions, the hatred and the rivalry are just make believe.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The First Jesus

Ive been thinking a lot about story and history this week.

Many years ago i was leading a Bible study in an evangelical church on the resurrection stories. The words just slipped out of my mouth. "If someone found a bag of bones somewhere in the Middle East and they were shown to be the remains of Jesus, i wouldnt even miss breakfast." There was a stony silence in the room. Eyes popped, jaws dropped, and one person said, 'Thats heresy."

It was hard to explain back then, but i have never felt the need for a literal resurrection in order to believe in the empowering metaphor of resurrection. Resurrection is an inner resolve to persevere against all odds. Resurrection is a fresh start, grace and grit, new possibilities. The story of Jesus resurrection has always inspired this sort of inner resolve, and it never needed to actually happen to do that for me.

Lots of stories have that affect. The Wizard of Oz was a very infuential story for me as a child. I thought Dorothy was about as brave as a person could be. I imagined that i was living my own "oz" story, and found courage in the way Dorothy survived.

Does the same imagination apply to elements of the Christmas story? Is there value in the myth even if the details were completely fabricated?
Does the same apply to the whole life and ministry of Jesus? Is there value and inspiration in the story even if none of it actually happened?

The Jesus Seminar is a group committed to accurately portraying the first Jesus, the Jesus of history. They color coded the words of Jesus into those that were more or less likely to have actually been said by Jesus. They generally agree that Jesus was a social revolutionary who taught in parables and metaphors. He was an itinerant Jewish sage who did not die to save sinners nor did he rise from the dead. They found that Jesus was a radical who broke with Jewish theology, ritual and social convention. He preached that the kingdom is unseen but already present, a realm where outsiders were accepted and insiders were challenged to greater justice.

This has been an important work, opening up ways for modern people to nurture their love of the story and teachings of Jesus while being true to history. Of course the Jesus Seminar has not been without its critics. One line of criticism has been that most of the Jesus Seminar scholars have started from a perspective of theology; ie they read their own theological preferences back into the Jesus story.

A new group has now formed, called The Jesus Project. The group has a similar committment to uncovering the Jesus of history, but they are dedicated to not having any theological agenda. They operate with a purely scientific method and scholarly objectivity. The group is made up of historians, biblical scholars and theologians and is sponsored by CFI (Centre for Inquiry). They met this past weekend and discussed a range of options including evidence that locates the tomb of Jesus, and the view that Jesus did not exist.

You can listen to a short audio interview with Robert Price, the co-chair of the group, and hear him speak about his view that Jesus did not exist.

This project presents an important challenge to people who love, or are even interested in, the Jesus story. Would the story and the tradition still inspire you if none of it has any historical reliability? Its a question worth thinking about.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Third Jesus

Deepak Chopra had a brilliant idea when he wrote "The Third Jesus". He offered a simple way to think about Jesus. The first Jesus is a historical conundrum, variously thought of as religious teacher and social revolutionary. Ideas about the first Jesus are always changing, as textual scholarship and archeology bring to light new understandings.

The second Jesus is the Jesus of theology. Again, the second Jesus is a moving target. Theology about Jesus is usually coopted from the way different groups understand the first Jesus; eg liberation theology understands the first Jesus as a social revolutionary so they develop a theology to match. Those who believe in a sin/ atonement theology read back into the first Jesus a supernatural role as divine scapegoat.

The first and second Jesus are both important, inspiring and intriguing. But this is usually the place for division and religious rivalry. The third Jesus points to something universal that transcends and includes all specific "perspectives" on Jesus.

In my sermon yesterday, I spoke about these distinctions, focusing on the Christmas story, the Monty Python movie The Life of Brian and Mother Theresa. Here is an extract-

"Whatever you believe about the first and second Jesus, don’t let it distract you from your essential humanity and life purpose. Something magical is taking place in your life. Your inner star is guiding you to a new consciousness. It might look rough like an old farm shed, and it might not be very grand, but it is a miracle none the less. Wise ones will gather around. They might not bow down and worship you as the Messiah, but they will nurture the birth of this new consciousness that you are part of them and they are part of you. You will dream dreams and imagine peaceful worlds and your intentions and actions will be part of this peace. Your purpose is to birth your own Christ consciousness, and have your own direct and present experience of God."

to read more, watch or listen to the sermon go to