Christianity Down Under

Bernard Salt writes:

The first 200 years of white settlement yielded two distinctive Australian cultures: the bush and the city. A third culture emerged in the latter decades of the 20th century and remains ascendant – the culture of the beach.

Some recent comments I made on Andii Bowsher’s blog about patriotism and its discontents have prompted me to write further about the challenges that lie ahead for the Christian movement in Australia.

One of the stark realities we face in Australia is that Christianity has never truly been indigenised in this land. Our island continent has never given birth to a Christian movement comparable to the Great Awakening in America or the Methodist Revival in Britain. And to this day hard core Christianity is more frequently associated with American cultural hegemony, anachronistic British monarchism and Italian papism than Aussie identity.

The advent of globalisation may prompt people to ask whether indigenisation is a live issue any more. Yet paradoxically, globalisation has spawned ethno-religious tribalism in many lands which underlines the continuing need to consider the importance of “place” in the formation of identity.

If we accept this, the natural question that emerges is: how then do we Aussies move forward? To date most attempts at contextualising Christianity for the Australian scene have focused on bush motifs. Sometimes referred to as “gum-leaf theology”, recent examples include “The Aussie Bible” and “Aussie Yarns” by Kel Richards which prominently feature the Aussie outback on the cover.

Yet as the above quote by Bernard Salt illustrates, beach motifs may be more important moving forward.

In following this thread I’d like to put forward three images which may serve as spiritual metaphors for reflection – surf, sun and sand.

The Surf. Water motifs are associated with the movement of the Spirit in many religious traditions, including Christianity, yet curiously Aussie Christians have rarely taken this up as a motif for communicating the gospel. I find it intriguing that Aussie surf culture rapidly adopted the yin-yang symbol of Taoism as one of its motifs and in fact this was one of my first introductions to eastern mysticism as a young beach goer. It raises the question of how Christianity should respond. Some of you may recall a movie made in 1991 called Point Break, starring Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze. Although an American movie, it is interesting to note that at the climax Bodhi (Swayze) surfs into a once-in-a-lifetime monster surf off the coast of Victoria, Australia. We are left with the image of a maverick taking on the forces of primal chaos and embracing death rather than face capture. Though he’s a criminal, he earns a strange sort of respect from the Special Agent Utah (Reeves) and I think there’s a Christ motif lurking in there somewhere. Again, pseudo-Taoist surf spirituality weaves a thread through the movie. I wonder how some of the images of Revelation, of the sea of glass before the throne of God, may be played with here. I ponder whether surfing as metaphor for walking on water can be explored as well.

The Sun. The solar disk evokes life energy and sun motifs loomed large in early Roman Christianity. The halo of many Christian artworks originally evoked a solar disk and derived from pagan representations of Sol Invictus, the Sun God. Many early churches faced east towards the rising sun. Again, if this motif has been appropriated by Christians before, why not again? Sun as metaphor for the life sustaining energies of the creator? I see intriguing possibilities.

The Sand. The shores of the beach evoke liminal space, the transition zone between sea and land as metaphor for liminal space between earth and spirit. One of the few indigenous Aussie Christian traditions we have is the beach baptism. The sunrise Easter service is another beach church tradition that I find thought provoking. And it should not escape our notice that many Aussies, Christian and non-Christian find walks on the beach to be excellent for spiritual reflection. City dwellers in particular attribute almost Sabbath-like associations to beach trips so I suspect this motif can be taken a lot further. Obviously the story in John of Jesus cooking fish on the beach after his resurrection is begging to be explored at this point.

These are just a few initial thoughts of mine but I hope it prompts further reflection. I am not proposing this as the last word on the matter. As Mike Frost has said in his article Translating the Gospel:

When I give thought to a contextualised approach to evangelism in Australia, I am not supposing some simple, cosmetic reworking of church symbols or language. I yearn for something more rich and complex, more daring and dangerous. In the late 1980’s there was a brief movement within the church in Australia toward contextualisation, but it tended to be characterised by a focus on symbols that connected the church to a nineteenth century colonial Australian experience. It has been summed up in the now-disparaging term ‘gumleaf theology’ in so far as it focused on granny smith apples, Ned Kelly, anti-authorit-arianism and bush music. In a cosmopolitan, multicultural, technologically advanced nation like Australia, cosmetic tinkering will not suffice. The churches must recognise the diversity of contemporary Australian culture and must therefore allow ministry to take different forms and approaches in different sub-cultural contexts. The one-size-fits-all approach to church mission and evangelism must be abandoned.

Yes, the one-dimensional approach of “gumleaf” theology is no answer and I am not proposing a “surf theology” as a one-size-fits-all alternative. However, my reflections on the shifts in Aussie culture prompt me to consider how beach motifs resonate with the Australian psyche and contribute to the rich multi-cultural tapestry we call the Australian experience.

For more see:

Australian Popular Culture – Bush to Beach by Dr Shirleene Robinson – Bond University

The third Australian culture – from the bush to the burbs to the beach by Bernard Salt – Property Consumer & Cultural Trends Commentator

Shaping the Australian Baptist Movement by Dr Ken Manley, Whitley College, University of Melboure

Translating the Gospel by Mike Frost, Centre for Evangelism and Global Mission

An interesting side note: although the Christian Surfers have put out a Surfer’s Bible you’ll note that surf language and beach motifs are curiously absent from the associated gospel presentation. I don’t know if these motifs have ever been explored in depth – but if I’m missing anything please drop me a line.

7 thoughts on “Christianity Down Under

  1. Matt
    There are plus and minus signs in this interesting mix of coastal images.
    It is worth noting that the coastal edge has been scooped up in a preliminary theological foray into an eco-eschatology in Australia. Nancy Victorin-Vangerud (Murdoch Uni)has explored this in her paper “The Sacred Edge: Seascape as Spiritual Resource for an Australia Eco-eschatology”, Ecotheology, vol. 6, numbers 1/2 (2001) pp 167-185. Indeed that specific edition of the journal “ecotheology” was devoted to the theme: “Voices and Silences – Ecotheological Perspectives from Canada, Australia and New Zealand”. This journal is distributed by the same outfit that now distributes “The Pomegranate: International Journal of Pagan Studies” and “Australian Religion Studies Review”.
    The article I’ve listed has this abstract:
    “In the Australian context, the desert or bush landscape has provided the primary sense of place for spiritual and ecotheological reflection. But what is it about Australians and the sea? This exploration makes the case that a spiritual sense of place as seascape can inform the constructive work of Australian eco-eschatology. By shifting perspectives from desert fathers to ocean mothers, an alternative spiritual map can be imagined that re-names the geographical margins as a sacred edge. Through the ocean-wisdom of life’s risk, fluidity and dynamic openness, the article explores the critical construction of an eco-eschatology of dis/closive possibility.”
    Aside from that eco-theological foray (not exactly contextual missions!), the sunshine motif was taken up by David Millikan in the early 1980s in the ABC TV presentation (and book) “the Sunburnt Soul”.
    From a novelist’s outlook, and one shaped by Christian conviction, you can explore Tim Winton’s Land’s Edge (Picador 1993), where he writes that “the sea is the supreme metaphor for change”. He invokes the seacsape motifs in several novels like “An Open Swimmer” (1982), “Cloudstreet” (1991) and “Shallows” (1984).
    The sea has been invoked by non-Christians like the poet Judith Wright whose spirituality is Buddhist.
    While a great majority of Australians do inhabit the coastal edge, and celebrate recreationally on the beaches, there are some limitations to keep in mind:-
    a. Those who do not inhabit the coast (but live in the interior) will not necessarily relate to a beach-theology/spirituality.
    b. While many pleasant motifs can be evoked by the beach, it also has its “darker” side — the unpredictable sea, dangerous rips and tides, shark-attacks, and pollution of the waters. The Apocalyse carries some of the darker motifs too (like poisoned seas, dead fish etc).
    c. In church history in Australia, the beach has been off-limits due to a puritanical streak. The beach was a seductive competitor with Sunday church services; the skimpy swimwear a sign of carnality to be preached against and so on. While much of the puritanical taboos have receded, I’d suggest that the taboos in the psyche have acted as a hand-brake on any positive appropriation of the motifs of the beach and sea theologically.
    d. A minority of Australians do not like the beach, do not surf or swim — so not everyone will respond positively to motifs they themselves do not relate to in their ordinary life-settings.


  2. Let’s see… I go to ‘Eastcoast City Church’, in the Sutherland Shire area of Sydney. There’s a natural beachiness to the community; I’d do something very different for one in the inner city though. Natural wonder in creation is a theme that’s more general, and which beaches exemplify well. cf. ‘Natural Wonder’ at


  3. Philip
    Yes, as stated I wouldn’t want this to be seen as a cure all and after all it only reflects one dimension of Australian culture. Merely wondering about why the theme has been so neglected missiologically – your musings on past puritanical taboos is something I had not considered. Interesting. And yes I do need to draw out the darker motifs too. That’s where I thought Point Break had some interesting dynamics, as while Bodhi (~ note his name means wisdom / awakening in Buddhist lore) waxed lyrical on waves, the darker chaotic side of the ocean was clearly evident towards the end. Just watched myth-busters bust “Jaws” last week so yes we can’t forget those sharks!! Interesting thing is, as the Sydney pollution has cleared up in recent years with the ocean outfalls the sharks have become more common again. Some dark paradoxes to be explored there.
    Incidently, I had a profound moment a few years back, walking along the beach at Fraser Island, meditating and praying at dawn, when a pod of dolphins swam up and started keeping pace with me off shore. I felt such a profound connection with the creation and its Creator at that moment…


  4. Matt,
    Some interesting comments and as others above have noted not suitable for all Aussies. I just wonder what to do with the fact that 85% of us live in cities. Yes most of us are near the beach but I wonder if the surf thing is more Sydney/Perth. Melb/ Adelaide/ Hobart/ Canberra/ Darwin and Brisbane (to only draw on the capital cities for sake of space) don’t have surf beaches lapping on their shores. Perhaps the image you are searching for is really just water (and the corresponding imagery with drought)? Good post, thanks.


  5. Yes, I agree the diversity of the Australian environment precludes these images from being universally applicable. And I am not disparaging past attempts focused on bush culture – gum-leaf and rainbow-serpent theologies still have their place – I am merely seeking to push the boundaries beyond it. So to borrow some emergent language, consider this a “post-bush” diatribe rather than an “anti-bush” one.
    In acknowledging three distinctive inter-related Australian cultures – the bush, the burbs and the beach – I have chosen to focus of the beach in my initial post as I believe that is the one that can be expected to make the most waves in the decade ahead as the sea change phenomena continues. The burbs and the bush have already made their mark, yet beach culture is still new in comparison. And as I noted in my follow up post, it is currently generating a new literary wave.
    I realise the beach motif will never resonate with Canberra or Alice Springs populations but my essential point is that while attempts have been made for contextualising for the bush, the same cannot be said for the beach and this is rather problematic given some of the large demographics shifts towards the QLD Gold Coast and NSW Central Coast of late. Can we expect beach residents to identify with slouch hats, red sand or snowy rivers to the same extent as their inland cousins?
    That being said, the various comments above have prompted me to consider to putting my thoughts on the city suburbs out into the blogosphere also. Watch this space.


  6. Right question and maybe the right answer (or a path to the right answer).
    The bush motifs just don’t do it anymore, but I’m not conviced many aussies are really happy with the idea of being city-dwellers (in fact most are not, they are really suburbanites and increasingly exurbanites). The suburban motifs are troublesome (50s “family-oriented’ overtones), but it does seem that some leafy suburbs are also bible-belts.
    What your beach and surf motifs have going for them is a degree of aspiration and acessibility. When I was growing up the “surf-culture” was dominated by images of blond haired and blue-eyed types, but the beach reality was far more diverse. It was both a place and practice where new Australians joined and started to understand the culture.
    It is also has, interestingly enough, a contemplative element. This is where you can try to expand it somewhat. The beach is also about the view, the expanse of ocean and water. Even when you get away from the coast, what I think stirs the souls of aussies is the wide open vistas, be they coast, mountain or range.


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