A spotters guide to Aboriginal symbols

These are some symbols you will commonly come across in Australian Aboriginal art. An important point to note is that the perspective is generally that of looking down on the land from above, as is common for maps. Because that’s what Aboriginal artworks actually are.

Now try testing your new skills on this painting. Can you identify the camp, the river, and the trail? As you browse through some of the Christian Aboriginal art on Curious Christian see if you can decode their meaning. It’s much more rewarding when you can actually read them.


How the church messed up with Aboriginal Australians

Hope Beyond the Window by Jacqui Stewart

This image by Jacqui Stewart is entitled “Hope Beyond the Window”. As an Australian Christian I find it very confronting. Here is an interpretation of the image that Jacqui passed on through her blog:

‘The above piece of work depicts the scene of half-caste Aboriginal children sitting in front of the church they were taken too after being ‘stolen’ from their parents. In first looking at this representation, it may be misinterpreted as a seemingly peaceful scene. Images of green trees, leaves blowing in the wind and the children sitting in an almost structured fashion. The church in the distance looks well established; something probably constructed by White settlers. It is hard to tell, but it may be built using bricks. The sky is blue with minimal clouds evident, giving us the impression that it was a nice clear day when this artwork was created.

Due to the topic of this essay, and perhaps even the title of the artwork itself, it is evident that this is not a depiction of a happy occurrence. The children dressed in white sitting calmly on the ground are children that have been stolen from their parents without choice. The children are sitting there calmly because they have been told. The church is where the children are being taught the Western way of life and how a White settlers’ way of living is considered ‘better’ than those of Aborigines.

In delving deeper into analysing this piece of art, some features became more clear that would otherwise perhaps go unnoticed. There were multiple hidden symbols that represent particular ideas that the artist may have been trying to convey when creating this piece of work.

One feature is that the children were always dressed in white. All children wore the exact same dress-like clothing. One may consider this to be the uniform of the particular camp or church that they were taken too. The artist may have been trying to convey the idea that the Aboriginal half-casts were now being taught the White settlers’ way of living, their culture, and their beliefs. In other words, the Aboriginal children were being taught how to become white, hence the symbolism of the all white clothing against the dark skin.

Another idea that the artist may have been trying to get the viewer to see was one of hope. The layout of this painting alone gives this feeling to the viewer about the children sitting in the foreground. To show someone or something belonging to something else, for example, these children belonging to the church, the technique of proximity would be used. The further things are apart from each other, the lesser of a relationship exists between the objects. In looking at this image, the children are seated quite far away from the church, suggesting that although they were taken to this church to be a part of something, they don’t actually belong to the church or the White settlers’. The wide-open spaces surrounding the children and the church indicate space. Then there is also the space between the children and the church itself. This space indicates room to move; in particular, room to move away, or escape from the church. This suggests that there is hope for the children, and that they may not need to spend their future being forced to do something against their will. They had a choice in the matter, and a chance to set them free.’

What is distinctive about Australian art?

“My Harvest Home” by John Glover

As an Australian who is interested in exploring more contextual expressions of Christianity I feel an obvious question I must ask is, is there anything distinctive about Australian art, and if so, what?

I can’t say I have a definitive answer but I have noted a number of sources drawing attention to an early shift in the way Euro-Australian artists used light as they became more acclimatised to the land.

One government source observes, “Rather than the pale light European artists were familiar with, Heidelberg School artists painted landscapes and scenes that glowed with the bright, blinding light of an Australian summer.”

I find this has some resonance for me. For having travelled in Europe a few times, much as I loved it, it did feel dark and claustrophobic to me at times. So it gives me something to think about.

The Australian Soul

I thought I would share with you some interesting observations made by Gary Bouma in “Australian Soul: Religion and Spirituality in the Twenty-First Century.” Although he made them back in 2006 I think they are still highly accurate and relevant. He writes:

A society’s religious institution sets the levels of religious belief and practice required for a member of that society to be accepted. While these are basic, both over-conformity and under-conformity will be sanctioned. A society’s religious institutions refers to the patterned ways that society organises access to the sacred and both produces and applies meanings that refer to the transcendent. Religious meanings are assured by reference to some power, force or being beyond the ordinary, beyond the temporal. This institution or set of norms and expectations includes the patterned ways in which a society raises and answers questions of transcendentally grounded meaning; the ways it patterns action relating to spiritual and religious life; and the sociocultural – as opposed to organisational – norms regarding religious belief and practice. A society’s religious institution is an arrangement of norms and expectations that provide a foundation in the transcendent for the hopes, dreams and aspirations of members of the society in such a way as to make sense of the past, motivate the present and cushion the blows of disconfirming evidence.

A society’s religious institution includes norms and expectations about religious and spiritual practice and belief, such as intensity, expressivity, frequency, periodicity and cyclicity. These dimensions are useful for describing and comparing differences among societies. For example, the Australian norms and expectations associated with the dimensions of patterned relations with the transcendent, religious and spiritual include:

intensity: a strong tendency towards the subdued, laid back

expressivity: a strong tendency towards the shy, withdrawn and not exuberant

frequency: a strong tendency towards infrequent or occasional attendance

periodicity: annual/biannual participation is more acceptable than weekly

cyclicity: a tendency for participation to occur early and late in the lifecycle

consistency: a low level of consistency between belief and practice is accepted

singularity: persons are expected to identify with one religion

proximity: the transcendent is expected to be distant, localised and diffuse

efficacy: the transcendent is subject to influence, trustworthy and effective

access: the transcendent to be accessed directly and through professionals

social location: religious groups are expected to be on the margin, not central.

Thus, the Australian religious institution has expectations that shape the nature and operation of Australian religious and spiritual groups and individual religiosity. Groups are expected to offer and adopt forms of belief and practice that are not intensely demanding. Weekly attendance is not necessary for social acceptance and might be seen as over-conforming.

People in their late teens and twenties are not expected to give religion and spirituality much time, at least until they have children and then they might be legitimately too busy. Religiosity and spirituality should not require exuberant expression, particularly in public. Those who must be noisy about their religion and spirituality are encouraged do so within enclosed areas and to think many times before making a public display of prayer, eating norms or religious insignia and distinctive clothing. Finally, people may believe what they like, but the society does not expect either the group or individual members to be explicit about putting beliefs into practice.

These norms of the Australian religious institution are quite different from the expectations of the average Christian church where higher levels of intensity, a high degree of consistency, higher frequency and at least weekly periodicity are the ideals towards which all are encouraged to strive. In seeking to achieve conformity to these norms, Christian churches are making demands that exceed the norms of the Australian religious institution and can be expected to experience difficulties in doing so. The levels of expectation outlined above are also different from the cultural expectations associated with Buddhism, but much closer to those of Islam and Judaism.

Aboriginal Christian Art from Western Australia

094This picture comes from Western Australia, courtesy of a friend of mine. He writes: “Hi Matt, Was thinking of you. We were in W.A 2 weeks ago and went to New Norcia.  Was profoundly impressed in that in the 19thc they genuinely respected the Aboriginals and genuinely tried to incarnate the Gospel to them. The art work in their museum is staggeringly good (back to 15th C art) Anyhow, the attached (sorry about the quality, hard one to take a photograph of without a flash) is about 2 metres by 1. Painted last century, I’ll let you figure out who Mary Joseph and Jesus are!”

Australians and Religion

Well the Christmas season is over again and I find myself reflecting on what Christianity means for most Australians. I think it would be fair to say that most Australians have a place for God in their lives, a place for religion is their lives, as long as it demands nothing of them.

Many enjoy the Christmas carols, particularly the traditional ones. Many will attend a church for a Christmas eve or Christmas morning service, and some may even talk about it afterwards. But what they’re looking for most of all is a tradition that is on-call when needed, but in the background when not.

Australians are not Godless, but they’re not God centred either. They’re more … whatever. The options of militant Atheism and committed Christianity both require too much energy. What many Aussies seem to want, whether they articulate it this way or not, is laid back religion.

Church for Athiests now in Australia

Surfing through some of the comments on The Spirit of Things website I learned that The Sunday Assembly, described by a member of the Atheist Society as “a Hillsong for non-believers”, has set up a daughter organisation in Melbourne, Australia.

Following this up I found this article by local founder, comedian and writer Pippa Evans which I’d recommend you have a read of.

I find it curious that while many are seeking God without church, this crowd is seeking church without God.

Australian Communities Report: See what Aussies do and don’t have faith in

If you’re interested in understanding religion in Australia, I highly recommend you read Tall Skinny Kiwi’s latest post, So what do Aussies REALLY think of the church?

It draws attention to a recent survey from Olive Tree Media into Australians views on Christ, Christianity and ir/religion in general. If you want you can also view or download the full Olive Tree Media infographic.

Challenges the survey highlighted:

  • Most see Jesus as historical, but few see him as living or transcendent
  • The ‘spiritual but not religious’ now outnumber Protestants
  • Parents and family are clearly the most formative influence on dis/belief
  • 51% of Aussies are “not open at all” to changing worldview
  • Non believers are not necessarily ignorant of belief
  • Religious conversations are not routine but not taboo
  • The most “massively negative” barriers to Christianity include: church abuse, religious war, hypocrisy and judging others.

I find the religious war issue particularly interesting since this is the one I’ve found Christians are most resistant to owning up to or repenting of. But when I look at all these barriers holistically I get the impression that the root cause is grace which is preached but not practiced. The way forward then would appear to be obvious: we need to focus on discipleship.

Issues that are less important than we might think from listening to leading pundits:

  • Science and evolution as barriers to faith
  • Islam as a threat to the Australian religious mix
  • Homosexuals and women in ministry
  • Outdated music

Next to concerns about pedophiles and predators in ministry (aka church abuse), these issues are distinctly secondary in the mind of average Australians. Which raises an issue related to discipleship: discipline. How do we handle conflict, disagreement, lack of integrity and moral lapses within and beyond the church in ways that are more Christlike?

Here are some teachings that come to mind for me:

Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. (1 Corinthians 13:6)

Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. (Ephesians 4:15)

Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other, love one another deeply, from the heart. (1 Peter 1:22)

Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. (1 John 3:18)

God never intended for truth and love to be separated, nor doctrine and lifestyle. Let us not be whitewashed tombs, with beautiful music covering ugly hearts. Let us seek to live lives disciplined by the way, the truth and the life.

Is there a “Christian vote” in Australia?

If you’re interested in the interface between politics and religion in highly secular cultures then, whatever your religious or irreligious leanings, I strongly encourage you to click through and read the essay “God Under Gillard: Religion and Politics in Australia” by Marrion Maddox on the ABC Religion and Ethics website.

Marrion lobs a number of well aimed hand grenades at media stereotypes of the “Christian vote” in Australia. Indeed, I can now see I’ve been victim to a few myself.

How many Australian Prime Ministers have been committed Christians? 

Most educated Australians realise Julia Gillard was hardly the first Atheist to lead the country. But have you ever wondered how the numbers stack up overall?

“In his recent study of the faith of Australian prime ministers, John Warhurst has concluded that, between Federation in 1901 and the overthrow of Labor leader Kevin Rudd in 2010, four prime ministers were “articulate atheists or agnostics,” while a fifth’s atheism or agnosticism, though not explicitly articulated, could be inferred from his statements and actions.”

“Warhurst classified eight prime ministers as observant Christians (understood as attending church at least monthly during their prime ministership), two as conventional (occasional churchgoers) and nine as nominal (attending only for formal and official occasions).”

In other words, the ratio of atheists and agnostics to committed Christians and occasional churchgoers has been 5:10. That’s 50%! Now consider the elephant in the room, the nominal Prime Ministers, those who’s religious identity was little more than a vestigial organ. Though rarely acknowledged in politicised religion vs irreligion debates, its clear that nominal Prime Ministers have rivalled the committed Christians.

Looking at more recent history Marion notes, “The most striking feature of Warhurst’s analysis is that he classes only two post-1950 prime ministers as “observant,” and those are the most recent in his sample: John Howard (1996-2007) and Kevin Rudd (2007-2010).”

Speaking of Howard she says, “Despite surface similarities to American-style religious politics, the Australian version is no straightforward importation of American “family values” ideas with a Christian gloss, for at least two reasons. First, as discussed above, Australia simply does not have the religious voter base which, in the United States, retains the capacity to swing election results. Second, and at least as importantly, Australia has compulsory voting.”

So how do we interpret the sensationalist headlines? “The attention paid to Gillard’s announcement of unbelief was a reaction to the tone of the prime ministerships of the immediate past, rather than (as many of those making the comments assumed) to long-standing tradition. The novelty in 2010 was less that a Prime Minister lacked faith, than that Australia’s commentariat now cared.”

How right wing are Christian voters in Australia?

Much as the Australian Christian Lobby would wish otherwise, Marrion disputes the easy equation between religious commitment and political conservatism, stating “those religiously-committed voters are far from a uniform block, politically. Australia’s religious left has gained far less media attention in recent decades than its religious right, but, both historically and today, it makes nonsense of any easy equation between religion and conservatism.” 

Get some perspective in other words. “The idea that Australian politics includes a block “Christian vote” goes back only to the aftermath of the 2007 election. Until then, the traditional, albeit dwindling, Catholic support for Labor had provided Australia’s nearest thing to a religio-psephological chestnut.” The religio-political equation is much more complex in Australia than sound bites and popular opinion suggest.

How intolerant and racist are committed Christians in Australia?

This was the bit that really surprised me, really surprised me. Who are the most xenophobic Australians? Apparently, it’s neither the most religious, nor the irreligious, but the nominals!

Despite disagreeing in so many ways on so many different things, it would seem strong Atheists and strong Christians stand side by side against racism and for refugees (despite most of us not realising it). Citing a study by Hans Mol she observes, “Mol also asked how respondents felt about someone who wanted to keep Asians out of Australia. The more regularly Mol’s subjects went to church, the more likely they were to disapprove of such prejudice. Less regular attenders were increasingly likely to approve of, or at least tolerate, someone wanting to keep Australia Asian-free.” In contrast to conventional wisdom, he found “Nominal Christians, attending irregularly or not at all, had the most exclusionary racial attitudes.”

So what’s with the religiously inspired xenophobic rhetoric we’re all subjected to? “Here, Mol offers a hint as to the appeal of a conservative, religiously-inflected politics to a highly secular electorate. The appeal was unlikely to be to the small, politically engaged and also politically divided body of the religiously committed, whose votes were, in any case, likely to be relatively firmly locked in with one side of politics or the other. Instead, it was mainly to the much larger part of the Australian electorate that, while remaining personally uncommitted with respect to religion, regarded Christianity as a benign, if vaguely-conceived, force for some conservatively-understood notion of social good.”

Ever heard the phrase, “A little bit of knowledge can be dangerous?” It would seem that those with the most naive understanding of religion are the most likely to be swayed by religious sounding but politically motivated identity politics.

How religious is the private school debate?

Consider then how the religious naiveté of nominal Christians plays into other aspects of public life, such as the debate over private schools. Marrion observes that “the attraction of such schools to minimally or non-religious parents was often that they imparted “values,” something children were perceived to need and the wider society to lack.”

“Given that a significant number of parents sending their children to such schools are not doing so out of a commitment to the school’s religious vision, and that the more extreme religious positions of some such schools would be likely to deter uncommitted parents with sufficient religious literacy to discern it, we could say that the parents’ religious naivete appeared to be at least a partial condition for the schools’ success.


I found “God under Gillard” to be a timely reminder to remember the majority and recognise where they are at. To remember that committed Christians, left wing activists and right wing fundamentalists alike, are numerically insignificant in Australia, even in terms of religion. To recognise that the nominals – those who retain a religious identity but don’t retain much religious knowledge – are the battleground of identity politics whether we like it or not. And if we wish to combat xenophobia, its with the religiously naive majority that we need to start.