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The ‘irrelevant’ God meets Australia

Part of my experience of studying English at uni involved coming to understand and appreciate a post-modern approach to literature. In essence, the post-modern upholds that the reader, not the author, determines the meaning of a text. Thus, authorial intent does not trump ‘what I got out of it’. The question is not ‘What did the author mean when such and such happened?’ but ‘When such and such happened, what did it mean to me?’ Several readings of a text are therefore valid. Christians have traditionally shied away from post-modern literary critique because authorial intent is so pivotal to our doctrine of Scripture and rightly so. However, post-modernism offers the world of literature to Christians to read through their own eyes and critique on the basis of their own worldview rather than bothering with what the author intended. So, what is there to say about Australia?

At one level, Australia has the traditional narrative structure so informed by the Judeo-Christian history of Western cultures. The hero and heroine are faced with a number of challenges, from the theft of cattle from Faraway Downs to the careless actions of Fletcher’s men that lead to Daisy’s death, to the murders of Maitland and Carney. Such evil they overcome together followed by a momentary separation that is ended as they unite in the greater cause: to save Nullah and the others. It is here that the classic messiah character, Magarri, makes his sacrifice, the death of the one to save the many and justice is brought by King George’s execution of the evil Fletcher. And so the good guys win, the virtue of Sarah and the Drover and their band is recognised. Good triumphs over evil. As with many fairytales, this story offers an overly optimistic worldview, not to mention a make it up as you go morality. However, my interest lies less in the narrative structure of the film and more in its religiosity.

To start with the church, for a film that deals with the stolen generations, the church gets off pretty lightly. After all, it’s the authorities, not the church that take the children. The boys appeared well cared for on the mission, if a little strange in their uniforms. But there is no hint of abuse, despite the effeminate appearance of the priest. He is passionate about their welfare, determined to save them from the bombing of Darwin. While the church comes out of the film relatively unscathed, I’m not entirely convinced that this is something to celebrate. Because the church isn’t even significant enough to warrant a role as a villain. Instead, it is a well meaning but insignificant participant in the story. This fight is between the heroine and the governmental authorities and the church is impotent. I suspect that this is a symptom of the increasing irrelevance of the Christian church in Australian culture.

Indeed, throughout Australia, God is by and large ignored. In a film that so celebrates the natural beauty of Australia, the Creator is sidelined. There is one interesting moment as Sarah and her band ride between two monoliths and Nullah tells the audience that for the first time, Sarah’s eyes are opened to see the beauty of this strange land. And yet, she does not see that this testifies to the one who created it. God is absent, it seems. He who causes the sun to rise every morning is not even present to blame when there is not rain. Rather, the first wet simply comes. It is expected, it is the way of things. There is not room for a gracious God who showers his good gifts on the righteous and the unrighteous alike. It seems that these people are entitled to the beauty around them and the endowment of the skies. Again, Australia breaks little new ground here. Luhrmann is not doing something radical. Instead, he gives what seems to me to be a rather accurate representation of how Australians view themselves and their lives. They shut God out and, as far as they can tell, everything’s fine. The bad guys eventually get clobbered, the rain comes and the world floods down under to see our magnificent land.

There are some cracks that appear, the most obvious is Nullah’s view of sex. This is not beautiful gift from God, but rather ‘wrong side business’, something he has seen largely as a tool to exploit women, including his own mother. And the solution, it seems, lies within the self. As Nullah learns to meld the Rainbow Serpent’s song with Dorothy’s famous song, a new and fresh spirituality emerges, an Over The Rainbow Dreaming, a spiritual power he can control with his song. And just like that, spirituality is re-cast in human terms. It looks attractive too, this syncretism that makes the ancient spiritual power of Australia’s indigenous peoples available. And it can be easy to wonder as a Christian why we are so obstinate when it comes to the exclusivity of Christ. If we were willing to compromise a bit, could Christianity perhaps be re-cast in such new and fresh terms? It can be easy to think that this would make Christianity more appealing to the average Australian.

However when probed a little deeper, it becomes apparent that this syncretic spirituality is actually empty. When Daisy dies or the Drover and Nullah believe Sarah to be dead, there is little to do but to refrain from using her name, as Aboriginal custom requires. There is not even a sense of them living on through ancestor worship or traditional Dreaming stories. Without God, death too is just the way of things. It may be horrible and tragic, but that is just the way it is. However, this is never the way that Jesus responds to death. His gut-wrenching cry at Lazarus’ tomb alone reminds us of what an abomination death is, a terrible and unnatural thing. But this does not leave the Christian in despair. For Jesus is not at our beck and call. He is the sovereign Lord of all. All things were created by him and for him. And he has defeated death. This is why we must cling to Jesus’ sovereignty and exclusivity – because no man-made religion can offer victory over death. Only God made flesh could do it. He is the only hope of deliverance in a world not right. That which is new a fresh pales in comparison to the one who was and is and is to come.

Knowing Jesus, then, helps us to understand our world and the stories it tells. For Jesus too lived in this world of suffering and pain. He offers far more than the escapism of a fairytale which is gone after a few hours. He offers something far more satisfying – a promise to make this world new, to take us home where there will no longer be exploitation or death. That victory is assured. Satan has been trounced and we await his sure and ultimate destruction. In the meantime, we groan with the earth, awaiting our redemption and yet our hope is sure. Jesus offers not some comfortable spirituality but a real, authentic expectation of something better to come to share with together with other Christians. For until that great day of Christ’s return, death will be a part of life on here on earth, a stark reminder that there is no hope apart from Christ. This is the message that can never be irrelevant, and indeed, is the very water the parched Australian soul desperately needs. Australia and indeed, the world must hear of the resurrected Christ. 

Categories: Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.

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