Australia's Christian Heritage
Good Friday has come and gone, with a wake of slight disturbance around the question of gambling on that day. Should it happen? Why not? What Australian really knows why Good Friday is sacred? The Anglican Archbishop of Melbourne called it a ‘terrible desecration’. Is that an overreaction? To an audience who has mainly stopped listening, I think it is, but from this debate emerges another question – Does Australia have a public Christian story to tell anymore?
A couple of weekends ago, I went to hear Paul Roe from Cornerstone speak at an event in Bendigo. He spoke on Jesus’ ‘unpublished life’; the life until Jesus turned 30, of which we know very little. But we also had a conversation about Australia’s Christian history as well. Paul is conspiring to build a museum of Australian Christian history in Canberra, on the site of a planned national cathedral that was never built.
And no wonder – Australians have never had the ‘Manifest Destiny’ mindset of the US, where many believe America has a unique role to play in the salvation of the world, although some Australian Christians of a Zionist persuasion celebrate the charge of the Light Horse as the dominant factor in the establishment of modern Israel. But we do have a Christian history, most clearly seen in the emphatic but sometimes morally ambiguous annals of church agencies who reached out to the poor in the name of Jesus. We have heroes like John Flynn (Flying Doctor Service) and Mary MacKillop, who taught and cared for the most marginal Australians. But the churches were also complicit in the ‘Stolen Generation’ episodes.
Paul Roe’s main point was that Australia is losing a key chunk of its story, and that it needs to be told, without either hagiography or disdain. I agree. His desire for the museum in Canberra, as I see it, is a desire for public storytelling. My question is about whether a public museum, which will always be prone to becoming static, can tell a story. The ‘problem’ with the Jesus story is that it lives in those who follow him, whereas museums do not. They have a tendency to become static without massive & regular injections of money, whereas the community of Jesus survives simply wherever followers are present.
But, to side with Paul for a moment, we are surrounded by architectural and visual storytelling: in skyscrapers, parliament houses, advertising etc. All these put forward a worldview. Try standing under a skyscraper and insisting that money means nothing – the building itself argues against you. In this context, does it not make sense to create an architectural and visual story of the Christian worldview? And there we have the main problem; that phrase the Christian worldview. The best museums express a variety of worldviews in architecture and exhibitions – an authentically Christian public story would need to do the same. Public storytelling is crucial, but it rides on the back of the every day storytelling in the words and lives of followers of Jesus everywhere.