Testing faith


Christos Tsiolkas, Damascus, Allen & Unwin 2019,
ISBN 9780760875091, 423 pages.

From $AUD19 online, Kindle edition $AUD 16

Reviewed by Ted Witham

Christos Tsiolkas tells the story of Saint Paul in such a gritty fashion that I nearly gave up on the novel several times. It is not for the faint-hearted. Greek-Australian novelist Christos Tsiolkas is known for his hard-hitting and relentlessly honest writing. The Slap, a suburban novel exploring whether adults other than parents can administer corporal punishment, provoked controversy.

Tsiolkas’ previous novels, including Barracuda and The Slap, have been turned into movies. I wonder whether anyone will dare to make Damascus – The Movie. The novel skates on blasphemy – not a new charge against Tsiolkas – and its depiction of the brutality of the pagan empire surrounding and threatening the early Christians is sickening. The love between Paul and Timothy, and between Timothy and Thomas, is at the least obsessive, if not outright sexual. This factor alone will make it difficult for many Christians to accept the novel.

Three axes explore the different directions in which the early church was developing: Paul and Timothy represent the more orthodox view, that Jesus is the Saviour, that he has appeared after the resurrection, and that he will return soon and take into the resurrected life all the baptised.

Paul and Able (as Tsiolkas names the ex-slave Onesimus) represent the dilemma faced by the early church when Jesus does not return. Able believes that the Christians should ditch this teaching, and also baptise infants.

The third axis is Timothy and Thomas. This represents the view of some early Christians that Jesus was a great teacher and prophet who died – end of story. (Tsiolkas confesses in the afterword that this is closest to his view.)

The conflicts between these emerging theologies drive the story.

There are underlying themes that are common to Tsiolkas’ other work. The intense relationships between the men in the story reflect Tsiolkas’ own struggles with sexuality. The severity of a faith which requires its apostles to forsake family is portrayed fiercely. The treatment of the refugees who pour out of Judea after the destruction of the temple resonates with today.

I would not recommend this novel to fellow-Christians unless you really want to be challenged. It may be the book for a friend who is amoral and extremely secular, a lover of the violence in the Vikings series or Game of Thrones. Damascus has a depth and a challenge to believe that is absent from those.

Whoever reads Damascus will be moved and outraged. It will divide readers. Any novelist that can achieve those outcomes so forcefully is to be respected!

My novella The White Dove reviewed


My friend and fellow-author Philip Bodeker has reviewed my novella, The White Dove, obtainable through Smashwords.

THE WHITE DOVE.  (Ted Witham) Underground resistance in wartime France

From the small country town of Kojonup in Western Australia, where she has learned to handle wheat, sheep, trucks and guns, Emily Collins travels to France, marries into aristocracy and becomes involved during World War II, smuggling Jews and stranded Allied airmen across borders.  In a cat-and-mouse pursuit across France, avoiding murderous French Vichy “milice”, The White Dove is whisked along secret pathways and escape “pipelines” to meet trusted anti-German conspirators in quaintly named French farms and villages.

Through shocking tragedies, lost loves and secret meetings our Australian heroine is propelled in breathtaking escapades towards an escape route through the High Pyrenees mountains into Spain. Her skills in French dialects and Latin are invaluable as she encounters country folk and then a Franciscan religious community where she assumes the guise of a Franciscan nun.

Much of her story is possibly foreshadowed in the life story of The White Dove’s author, Anglican minister, scholar and languages lecturer Ted Witham, who like Emily was raised on a wheatbelt farm, studied French and Latin at the University of Western Australia and was educated at an elite Perth school.

The story doesn’t end at the Pyrenees. A family farm ownership dispute follows her across France, but is curiously solved by none other than family friend John Curtin, who after her return to Australia has become Australia’s Prime  Minister.

Emily’s skills and resistance experience now make her an ideal choice for Britain’s Special Operations Executive, or SOE, where she becomes part of the secret spy operations centre at Bletchley. A flickering romantic attachment with a rescued British airman during their initial escape across the Pyrenees reignites as the two become part of her final spy mission.

Review: Philip Bodeker.

Non-violence for Christians


Alan Kreider, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church: The Improbable Rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire, Baker Academic, 2016. 

Paperback 336 pages.
Available through the public library system.
Online: from $26. E-book: $16.

Reviewed by Ted Witham

How did the church grow so quickly in the first three centuries – from 120 on the day of Pentecost to up to 10% of the six million-strong Roman Empire by A.D 300?

The late Alan Kreider, who was Professor of Church History and Mission at the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Indiana, disputes this number. He doubts that it was ever that high but affirms that the improbable but real growth in numbers of the early church has not been really explained. The Patient Ferment of the Early Church is Kreider’s attempt to clear up that mystery.

Professor Kreider shows that the early church concentrated on encouraging a cluster of Christ-like behaviours, especially those that demonstrated the virtue of patience. This cluster of habitual actions Kreider calls their habitus.

These Christians who were in business were patient. They resisted taking others to court to settle affairs. Following Matthew 5:37 (‘Simply let your yes be yes and your no no’) they refused to take oaths in a society were oaths were central. They refrained from taking life, and any soldiers who wished to be admitted to the years-long training before baptism, the catechumenate, had to convince the bishop that they would not kill. Usually, they had to leave the army before they would be admitted as catechumens.

Kreider writes,

‘Habitually, Christians will share economically and care for the poor and the sick, widows and orphans; habitually, they will engage in business with truthfulness, without usury, and without pursuing profit to the extent of going before pagan judges; habitually, they will be a community of contentment and sexual restraint; habitually, they will behave with the multifaceted nonviolence of patience.’ (169)

The catechumens were not permitted to stay for worship. Three aspects of worship marked the early Christians as counter-cultural.

Firstly, the kiss of peace. Only equals in Roman society could kiss, and usually only in the family. For slaves and highborn, family and strangers to all kiss each other was shocking, and cemented the solidarity of the church.

Secondly, the prayers. Praying for one’s needs and the needs of others was a noisy and exuberant time. A poor man might pray for the day’s food and happen to be standing next to a rich man who could answer that prayer. Praying for those with the plague led Christians outside their own community to nurse the sick. Praying for the dying led Christians to offer burial to those who could not afford it.

‘Because they believed God answers prayers, they could take risks, live lives that were eventful and imprudent, and be faithful to a superstitio that could get them into hot water. There was power here, and outsiders got a whiff of it and wanted in.'(211)

Thirdly, they shared food. In early years, the food was a meal, and following Paul’s instructions, the rich were mandated to share with those with less. By the third century, the main worship had shifted from Saturday evening to early Sunday morning, and the food shared was symbolic, the bread and wine of communion.

(I was pleased to see Kreider reference my friend and former colleague Andrew McGowan’s academic work on the subject of food and the Eucharist in the early church.)

Kreider calls this way of being church a ‘ferment’. Like yeast, the secret activity at the heart of the Christian family changes the whole society, subtly, slowly, patiently, but thoroughly.

The emphasis in the first three centuries on patience and on habitus, behaviour, changed with Emperor Constantine and Bishop Augustine of Hippo. Constantine, who put off the catechumenate until shortly before his death, constantly intervened in the life of the church to make it grow.

Under Constantine, two ‘classes’ of Christian evolved. The serious ones continued to refrain from taking life. Others, less rigid in their interpretation of the sixth commandment, could continue to serve in the army and kill if they had to. Some Christians continued to avoid oath-taking. Others, who wanted to get along in the new administration, relaxed this rule and took oaths when asked.

Augustine re-defined the virtue of patience as a sub-set of love, changing the emphasis from behaviour to intention, and creating situational ethics rather than an agreed habitus.

Alan Kreider credits both Constantine and Augustine with good intentions but regrets the outcomes of their actions.

This raised for me some questions.

  • Is it idealistic to imagine we could return to a time where forming Christians is the church’s main activity, and allowing God to do God’s work of increase?
  • Can we go back to a time where Christians are genuine in avoiding killing and oath-taking?
  • Can we re-invest the liturgical kiss of peace with the intimacy and equality known by the early church?

I think, that as a Mennonite, Professor Kreider would have approved these questions!

The Hope of the New Creation


SERMON FOR THE 23RD SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

November 17, AD 2019

St George’s Anglican Church, Dunsborough

Gospel:

The Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Luke,
[Chapter 21 beginning at verse 5].
Glory to you, Lord Jesus Christ.

And while some were speaking of the temple, how it was adorned with noble stones and offerings, he said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” And they asked him, “Teacher, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when these things are about to take place?” And he said, “See that you are not led astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is at hand!’ Do not go after them. And when you hear of wars and tumults, do not be terrified, for these things must first take place, but the end will not be at once.”

10 Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. 11 There will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences. And there will be terrors and great signs from heaven. 12 But before all this they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake. 13 This will be your opportunity to bear witness. 14 Settle it therefore in your minds not to meditate beforehand how to answer, 15 for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict. 16 You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers[c] and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death. 17 You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. 18 But not a hair of your head will perish. 19 By your endurance you will gain your lives.

For the Gospel of the Lord.
Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ.

 

 

Most mornings I walk to the beach with our dog Lottie. There’s something healing about the gently surging waves of Geographe Bay. Its appearance changes from day to day; some days it is calm, on other days the light refracts into bright colours, red, greens and golds.

Some days, walking near the beach is disturbing. Stinking seaweed covers the sand and I’m not sure if that’s a natural process or not. Sinkholes appear in the sand where there was solid sand before. The sea seems to be eating the coast despite the best efforts of the City of Busselton with groynes and trucks bringing loads of sand.

You’ve probably seen the maps predicting greater storm-surges eroding our coastline. It’s sad enough that by 2040 Stilts near us may be under water, but much sadder will be the disappearance of whole cities like Venice and Bangkok, even whole countries like Bangladesh. The Indonesians are building a new capital on the island of Borneo, starting even while Joko Widodo is President, because parts of Jakarta are already under water.

There’s too much water in some places. In other places, there is stubborn drought. The WA Government has built desalination machines with the capacity to deliver half of our water supply… otherwise we would be thirsty.

In Queensland,  northern New South Wales and California, wildfires burn pretty much year-round. Polar ice is melting at never-before rates.

In St Paul’s language, creation is groaning. It’s not my job to tell you where to place your opinion on the climate change emergency, although I’ve probably hinted what mine is!

There’s a story about a speaker who advocated sustainable living, liveable cities, green transport, planting trees and gardens and renewable energy – the list went on. An angry voice from the back called out, ‘And what happens if we create this better world and there wasn’t a climate emergency?’

It is definitely my role to remind you of the preciousness of creation, God’s gift to us and our responsibility to God for it.

I believe that we Christians should have a binocular view of creation: through one lens, we should delight in the beauty of the world, marvel at its wonders, be thankful – more than that, be deeply grateful – for creation as our life-support.

Out of gratitude, we are called to be like our Creator. We are called not just to be grateful, but to be creative, too.

With the Psalmist, we praise God for creation:

O Lord, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom have you made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures
. (Psalm 104 24)

Through a second lens, we should be aware of all that disturbs us about the degradation of the natural world. Whether or not the climate is about to go over some tipping point or not, our response to the damages we see should be one of repentance. Part of our joyful penance is learning how to look after the earth better.

God commands the man and the woman in Genesis:
Fill the earth and subdue it. Take control of the all living things on the earth. (Genesis 1:28a)

Some scholars say that a better translation is:
Fill the earth and look after it. Take up your responsibility for all living things on the earth.

God is not telling humanity to exploit his creation by force; God is saying that our unique position as the dominant species means we have a responsibility to help creation flourish.

We do this partly by being creative people. Some of us take dyed cotton, cut and sew the material to make prayer-quilts, which are not just beautiful objects, but part of our worship: they embody our intercessions. The prayer-quilts respect the environment: some of the fabric is recycled. All of them are designed to last.

Someone among us searches for digital images to help us worship and these are projected. They create an atmosphere and they suggest links with the readings and themes of the day’s worship. Finding and choosing the best images is a time-consuming and creative task.

Not only do our musicians create beautiful sounds to lead our singing, we lift up our voices and blend them together to express our praise together. In music, in particular, we worship as one. Every time we sing or listen to the musicians, we create something new that has never existed before. Each performance creates something from nothing. Each act of creation is exercising our image of God; we are creative as God is creative.

Today’s readings give us every reason for hope.

It’s true, as we heard in the reading from Matthew, that our politics can mess up everything, from implementing Brexit to killing the Great Barrier Reef. Jesus could be confident in predicting the time when the politics in Judea were so bad that the Romans would come and wipe out Jews. In A.D. 70, the Roman army hammered Jerusalem and razed the Temple to the ground. They wrecked the built environment and severely damaged the natural world. They nearly succeeded in erasing every Jew and every trace of Jewish culture from the face of the earth.

We look around the world today – to Great Britain, to the U.S., to Turkey and Syria – and we see the devastation bad politics brings. Just when we think things couldn’t get any worse in Syria, they do. On current trends, if politicians and others don’t act, the Maldives in the Indian Ocean, and Kiribati and Tuvalu in the Pacific, will disappear under the waves.

And it’s easy to be depressed about this. ‘According to a new U.N. report,’ comedian Jay Leno says, ‘the global warming outlook is much worse than originally predicted. Which is pretty bad when they originally predicted it would destroy the planet.’

But Isaiah forcefully reminds us that this is God’s creation, not a human creation. God cares for it. God will act. God invites us to do all that is needed to help the planet flourish, and the human contribution does really matter, but ultimately the earth and the heavens are in God’s hands!

‘Behold, I create new heavens
and a new earth. …
‘Be glad and rejoice forever
in that which I create…’
(Isaiah 17a and 18a)

We Christians are in a different position than others who care about the environment. We believe that the heavens and the earth, the Bible’s shorthand for the Universe, will end up better than it is, better than it started. Some Christians believe that God will destroy this Universe and make another. I don’t think the Bible supports this view. I believe that the new heavens and the new earth will be this Universe, perfectly restored. That way makes a place for human beings ‘raised,’ as we will be ‘to eternal life’, perfectly restored, like the new Universe.

We could choose to disregard the firm intention of God and live in despair. Or we can reach out our hands and receive from God hope as a gift. When you reach out your hands for communion this morning and receive little pieces of God’s creation, some bread and wine, I invite you to see them as God’s gift to you of hope.

We, as Christian people, can re-frame the way we think about the environment. For us, it is not doom and gloom, even when it appears so. If there are challenges, we can see them as God’s invitation to do something, to put into practice all those things we know as individuals and as communities that will help creation flourish.

And then as St Paul says to the Christians at Thessalonica, ‘Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus.’ (I Thess. 5:18). In everything give thanks. This is the key. We give thanks for the opportunity to counter the effects of pollution. We give thanks for those who work with us to see that the environment can flourish. We give thanks for the works of beauty made by artists and craftspeople.

We rejoice, because this side of the new creation, we will continue to learn about our worlds. Astronomers have discovered planets in far-off star systems that may support life. Material scientists, physicists and chemists are making new theories about the science of consciousness; how our physical brain does not explain our mind, that wondrous world of thought and creativity.

Dogs, horses, cats, bobtails , magpies – when we meet them we often feel they are just as aware of us as we of them. They seem to have a mind, a level of consciousness, too. Some scientists even theorise that there is consciousness in every atom, it’s built into the building blocks of the Universe.

Then there’s the research at The University of WA showing how trees communicate, both through the fungus between them, and by sending scents into the air to warn other trees of insect attacks. Trees also give out a fragrance which is healing for us humans.

Exciting ideas.

And above all, we give thanks for the breath-taking works of the Creator as they are: the cool air of Ngilgi Cave, the red colour of the bottlebrush, the beguiling scent of crushed sandalwood, the jaunty gait of a running emu, the endless play of light and dark in our galaxy.

If you have A Prayer Book for Australia at home, look up the wonderful ‘Thanksgiving for Australia’ written by Bundjalung Aunty Lenore Parker She is an indigenous Anglican priest and her prayer goes like this:

God of holy dreaming, Great Creator Spirit,
from the dawn of creation you have given your children
the good things of Mother Earth.
You spoke and the gum tree grew.
In the vast desert and dense forest,
and in the cities at the water’s edge,
creation sings your praise.
Your presence endures
as the rock at the heart of our Land.
When Jesus hung on the tree
you heard the cries of all your people
and became one with the wounded ones:
the convicts, the hunted and the dispossessed.
The sunrise of your Son coloured the earth anew,
and bathed it in glorious hope.
In Jesus we have been reconciled to you,
to each other and to your whole creation.
Lead us on, Great Spirit,
as we gather from the four corners of the earth;
enable us to walk together in trust
from the hurt and shame of the past
into the full day which has dawned in Jesus Christ. Amen
.

 

 

 

 

Lessons from a personable robot


Simon Morden, Bright Morning Star, NewCon Press, 2019.

Kindle edition: $AU 8.75

Paperback: $24.

Reviewed by Ted Witham

The cover image for Simon Morden’s Bright Morning Star rather spoils the mental picture I built up for the ‘Robot’ who is the main character of this speculative story.

An alien probe lands on earth and finds itself in the midst of humans fighting. The probe’s task is simply to investigate and report back to Mother (the spaceship in orbit). The probe is self-aware and begins to forensically examine the corpses of victims of a mass shooting.

It then realises that there is intelligent life on earth and decides to study this life-form more fully. It gradually becomes aware that the shooting is part of a proxy war between Russia and the USA. The name of the nation-state which first protects him is not given, but this reader gained the impression that it was a fictional version of Ukraine.

As the probe gains understanding of the ramifications of the war, it deduces that war is inefficient and should be replaced by peace and cooperation. The humans who fall under his influence begin to realise that without international cooperation, the human race will never succeed at space-faring and will tear itself apart.

Bright Morning Star is told entirely from the perspective of the ‘Robot’ and in its voice. Simon Morden has taken a risk in making a logic machine the main character in his novel, but ‘Robot’ learns to behave empathetically and forms attachments with different humans.

I gained the impression that ‘Robot’ was much less massive than the cover image: its emerging personality was writ large, not its physical attributes.

Bright Morning Star is a good read and its appeal to the best in humanity worth hearing again.

Translating Saint Francis


I am pleased to announce that two poems I have translated from medieval Italian and Umbrian into English have been published in the Adelaide Literary Journal.

Part of Jacopone da Todi’s Lauda (Praises) on the subject of poverty is published as Lauda XV

Francis Seal of Love, by Vittoria Colonna is a Petrarchan sonnet. Colonna was a great admirer of St Francis.

End of the World?


Many have noticed the flaws in democracy. These days, you have only to glance at Trump, or watch Britain unravel over Brexit, or notice the hung parliaments and unconvincing votes around the world. Is it time to find a new system?

Climate change has defeated democratic decision making. The main parties are beholden to the big end of town, especially coal and gas, and rather than choosing to oversee a rational transition to renewable sources, politicians have dug their heels in and promoted products and practices that add to harmful emissions. The science is indisputable – or should be.

Don’t imagine that politicians are happy with their alliances with coal and banks. Their overreactions to the #Extinction Rebellion sit-ins have revealed how sensitive they are to criticism. To suggest mandatory jail and cutting protestors’ welfare payments is despotic. Messrs Littleproud and Canavan should note: Blocking roads is not new. I can remember sitting on Riverside Drive at peak-hour in 1969 to protest the danger for pedestrians crossing to and from The University of WA.

 The argument in This is Not a Drill, a series of opinion pieces by supporters of Extinction Rebellion (Penguin 2019) is that the democratic process has failed us by not taking dramatic action to mitigate climate change. In Australia, emissions are increasing, and sales of coal are growing. Younger people fear for their future: coastal flooding, the melting of polar ice, wildfires year-round and cycles of severe drought should cause fear. The mass extinction of many species and the destruction of much of the world’s coral reefs, including the beautiful Great Barrier Reef, should be cause for alarm and grief.

#Extinction Rebellion aims, in part, to shut down capital cities until governments declare a climate emergency. No one likes the disruption to daily life this causes, but it is far less that the disruption that climate change unchecked will bring.

Writers in This is Not a Drill argue that not only must clean energy be generated and coal and gas phased out, but also the whole economy must be re-made. The ‘free market’ with its dependence on growth and consumer addiction to constant purchasing are the cause of climate change. These writers argue for a more distributive economy, local and equitable. As they say if fewer than 10% control more than 80% of the wealth, the system is loaded for reform.

The #Extinction Rebellion street actions have an element of fun. Some placards are humorous, playful floats function as centrepieces. Food shared generously creates a party atmosphere. Rowan Williams, formerly Archbishop of Canterbury, pleads for a place for delight: this is God’s world we are trying to preserve, and our Scriptures describe the act of creation as a form of divine play. If there is no joy, but only earnest protest, #Extinction Rebellion becomes a negative, maybe destructive force. With the element of delight, however, the movement is showing what a renewed world will be like.

The claims of #Extinction Rebellion disturb me deeply. Has democracy failed? Can a new and loving politics replace it? I fear the answer to both questions is ‘Yes’. We owe it to our children and grandchildren to act to preserve their world. Democracy will evolve – it must – but we must fight for the future.