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.