Borrowed Biographies

The other day a mate of mine asked me what I thought about the Machine Gun Preacher who was coming to town ‘on tour’. Having watched the movie (and gathered some more reliable info) I explained that I remain deeply moved by this story of a hard man (and his family) finding God’s love, helping kids in Africa and killing some baddies, but that I pretty much knew what was going to happen to him before I even heard he would be doing the rounds of a preaching circuit. And sure enough, when my friend went to the show it was a disturbing mix of a man confronting hypocrisy and cowardice but at the same time putting on an ‘all about me’ event.

It’s what we—the bored Christianised westerners—do: we have to video, package and sell anyone who does something we consider ‘great’ in the hope that somehow their ‘message’ will make us feel better and fix everything up in our messed up world. But our hunger to ‘borrow from other people’s biographies’ is delivering up these heroes and heroines to a kind of strip-tease act—on the soul-destroying altar of the microphone and the camera lens. Our motives, rather then being about learning and growing, are more to do with our desire to experience life through the imagination, feelings or actions of other people, to glean vicarious pleasure from their struggles.

This temptation to the vicarious (or even voyeuristic*) is inevitably rampant in societies, families and individuals that are breaking down and feeling impotent in the face of what they perceive as evil influences—but more often than not the ‘evil’ is largely due to the fact that their own pride is under assault and all this angst is so unnecessary if only they could get over their tragic ‘violin-playing’ about the way life ought to be or used to be and simply walk across the road to their neighbour and choose to ‘mine compassion out of the pit of the world’s woes’.

It’s exactly this kind of thing that the Explorer’s Prayer Part II speaks to when it says, ‘This story is much greater than we know and to despair (even if it is romanticised and made pretty with clever words) is to sulk, to sit on the fence and to refuse the obvious: that life is ‘a mystery to be lived not a problem to be solved.’7 So we choose to ‘bet our lives upon one side in this great war’6 and to join with You in the sweet and patient work of grace, like the priest who—faced with the overwhelming burden of human suffering— refused to be intimidated by his own grief and by the scorn of those who demanded that he first answer their philosophical chess-plays about their conveniently manufactured idea of god: a straw god in fact. Instead, like Christ, he chose to turn his back on their contempt and to ‘mine compassion’1a out of the pit of the world’s woes. Amen.’

Walter Brueggemann has more to say about the wider context of this phenomenon in his essay, ‘Conversations Among Exiles’**. He says, ‘Our society is marked by a deep dislocation that touches every aspect of our lives. The old certitudes seem less certain; the old privileges are under powerful challenge; the old dominations are increasingly ineffective and fragile; the established governmental, educational, judicial and medical institutions seem less and less able to deliver what we need and have come to expect; the old social fabrics are fraying under the assault of selfishness, fear, anger and greed.

‘There seems no going back to our former world, since the circumstances making that world sustainable have changed. Because the church has been intimately connected with the old patterns of certitude, privilege and domination, it shares a common jeopardy with other old institutions. Church members are confused about authority, bewildered about mission, worried about finances, contentious about norms and ethics, and anxious about the church’s survival.

‘Our numbed and bewildered society lacks ways of thinking and speaking that can help us find remedies—that can enable us to go deep into the crisis and so avoid denial, and to imagine a better future and so avoid despair. But when the church is faithful to its own past life with God, it has ways of speaking, knowing and imagining that can successfully address our cultural malaise. When it remembers its ancient miracles, has the courage to speak in its own cadences, and re-engages old seasons of hurt, the church possesses the rhetorical and testimonial antidotes to denial and despair.

‘When thinking about dislocation, an Old Testament teacher moves by “dynamic analogy” to the exile, the determining and defining event of the Hebrew scriptures. By its stubbornness, its refusal to heed the purposes of Yahweh and its resolve to act against neighbourliness, Israel brought upon itself the great crisis of 587 B.C.E. In that year Jerusalem was burned and its temple destroyed, the king was exiled, the leading citizens were deported and public life ended. For ancient Israel, it was the end of privilege, certitude, domination, viable public institutions and a sustaining social fabric. It was the end of life with God, which Israel had taken for granted. In that wrenching time, ancient Israel faced the temptation of denial—the pretence that there had been no loss—and it faced the temptation of despair—the inability to see any way out.

‘The Old Testament stories of exile might be a resource, perhaps the only resource, to move us from denial and despair to possibility. Ancient Israel understood that unless loss is examined and understood, newness will not come. The traditions of exile suggest four ways of speech and of faithful imagination that the church can practice and offer as antidotes to denial and despair.

‘The ancient community of exiles learned, first of all, to express sadness, rage, anger and loss honestly. The Israelites lost nearly everything when they lost Jerusalem. Similarly, the current loss of old patterns of hegemony that gave privilege to whites and males and their various entourages seems immense. The enormous rage that accompanies such a loss shows up in family abuse, in absurd armament programs and budgets, in abusive prison policies, in a passion for capital punishment and in assaults upon the poor in the name of “reform.”

‘From Israel the church can learn a better way to deal with grief and rage. It can learn to address these emotions to God, for it is God who is terminating our unjust privilege and deceptive certitude. Ancient Israel broke the pattern of denial by engaging in speeches of complaint and lamentation that dared to say how overwhelming was the loss, how great the anxiety, how deep the consequent fear. Lamentations expresses the sadness of this experience by describing a bereft Jerusalem: “She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has none to comfort her” (1:2).’


* a person who gains sexual pleasure from watching others when they are naked or engaged in sexual activity … a person who enjoys seeing the pain or distress of others.

7. Deborah Smith Douglas

6 Studdert Kennedy’s poem ‘Faith’

1a Les Miserable

** Walter Brueggermann is professor emeritus of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. This article appeared in The Christian Century, July 2-9, 1997, pp. 630-632. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.

‘Imaginative Mission’ Session #2: Taming The Terror and Eliminating the Darkness

From the 23rd Sept – 27th, I will be hosting a five-days Imaginative Mission intensive at Burrabadine, Dubbo NSW. If you can’t afford to come for even a day, you’re very welcome to come for just one session. Below is an outline of session #2 Taming the Terror and Eliminating The Darkness.

This session is a reflective look at the wilting of the proud secular dream, which Walter Brueggemann speaks to when he says, ‘It is worth considering a “sociology of wonder,” and asking who is open to abiding astonishment,” and who might be compelled to overcome, banish, or deny such astonishment? I submit that “abiding astonishment,” the celebration of enduring miracle, tends not to occur among those who manage writing, who control the state, who create and transmit proper “facts,” who monopolise control, and who explain by cause and effect … ‘

The author suggests that our society (and even at times our ‘Christianity’) has a vested interest in this elimination of wonder and “abiding astonishment,” because ‘In our modern experience but probably also in every affluent culture it is believed that enough power and knowledge can tame the terror and eliminate the darkness *… The remarkable thing about Israel is that it did not banish or deny the darkness from its religious enterprise. It embraces the darkness as the very stuff of new life. Indeed, Israel seems to know that new life is rooted nowhere else.’

Rob Bell has a perceptive insight on this when he says, ‘A Christian should get very nervous when the flag and the Bible start holding hands. This is not a romance we want to encourage.’

We will also be looking at Vishal Mangalwadi’s perspective in ‘The Book That Made Your World.’

The Hairdresser and The Vampire

It’s a quiet day with a grey sky and drizzle. I walk along the main street past the shop that always plays Johnny cash (which is great) but today it’s not playing anything. Hardly anyone is out. At the place with the posters and hairstyles, and ‘different’ aromas I walk through the door for my appointed hair-cut but there’s no one there: no customers and no staff. After waiting a bit I call out and a lady comes out and shows me to a chair, explaining that it’s all set up and ready to go. She asks if I’ve taken time off work to come in and I explain that I’m kind of never at work but always at work, provided I have my phone with me.

Then the hair-cutting starts, and soon I’m telling her about my family and the fact that I love writing and telling stories and in fact that I’m presently working on a (twenty year old) story in which a major thread is borrowed from the George MacDonald novel Lilith where the main character falls in love with the Queen of Hell. The hairdresser wants to know more, so I explain to her that throughout the story, Lilith (the Queen of Hell) always has one hand closed and a wound in her side and that the wound and the closed hand seem to have a mysterious relationship. Finally—after a long and tortuous vampire relationship with the guy in the story—Lilith is broken, and comes to Adam’s house where she prepares to go on the long journey of sleep, which will take her to heaven. But she is unable to, because, as Adam explains, ‘You can lie there for a thousand years but until you open your hand and let go of what was never yours, you will never sleep.’ And try as she might Lilith is unable to open her hand. At this point the lady interrupts me and wants to know why Lilith couldn’t open her hand. I explain that her hand had become frozen shut because she has kept it closed for so long. What I don’t tell her about is Lilith’s attempt at fixing the problem.

A Prayer Journey: The Nightmare and the Rainbow – Chapter Two

A Caveat on ‘Looking At’ and ‘Looking Along’

The following meditation from CS Lewis is a good starting point. ‘I was standing today in the dark tool shed. The sun was shining outside and through a crack at the top of the door there came a sunbeam. From where I stood, that beam of light with the specks of dust floating in it, was the most striking thing in the place. Everything else was almost pitch-black. I was seeing the beam, not seeing things by it. Then I moved so that the beam fell on my eyes. Instantly the whole previous picture vanished. I saw no tool shed, and (above all) no beam. Instead I saw, framed in the irregular cranny at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the branches of a tree outside and beyond that, 90 odd million miles away, the sun. Looking along the beam, and looking at the beam are very different experiences.
But this is only a very simple example of the difference between looking at and looking along.

A young man meets a girl. The whole world looks different when he sees her. Her voice reminds him of something he has been trying to remember all his life, and ten minutes casual chat with her is more precious than all the favours that all other women in the world could grant. He is, as they say, “in love”. Now comes a scientist and describes this young man’s experience from the outside. For him it is all an affair of the young man’s genes and a recognised biological stimulus. That is the difference between looking along the sexual impulse and looking at it. When you have got into the habit of making this distinction you will find examples of it all day long.

The mathematician sits thinking, and to him it seems that he is contemplating timeless and spaceless truths about quantity. But the cerebral physiologist, if he could look inside the mathematician’s head, would find nothing timeless and spaceless there – only tiny movements in the grey matter. The savage dances in ecstasy at midnight before Nyonga and feels with every muscle that his dance is helping to bring the new green crops and the spring rain and the babies. The anthropologist, observing that savage, records that he is performing a fertility ritual of the type so- and-so. The girl cries over her broken doll and feels that she has lost a real friend; the psychologist says that her nascent maternal instinct has been temporarily lavished on a bit of shaped and coloured wax.

As soon as you have grasped this simple distinction, it raises a question. You get one experience of a thing when you look along it and another when you look at it. Which is the “true” or “valid” experience? Which tells you most about the thing? And you can hardly ask that question without noticing that for the last fifty years or so everyone has been taking the answer for granted. It has been assumed without discussion that if you want the true account of religion you must go, not to religious people, but to anthropologists; that if you want the true account of sexual love you must go, not to lovers, but to psychologists; that if you want to understand some “ideology” (such as medieval chivalry or the nineteenth-century idea of a “gentleman”), you must listen not to those who lived inside it, but to sociologists. The people who look at things have had it all their own way; the people who look along things have simply been brow-beaten.

It has even come to be taken for granted that the external account of a thing somehow refutes or “debunks” the account given from inside. “All these moral ideals which look so transcendental and beautiful from inside”, says the wiseacre, “are really only a mass of biological instincts and inherited taboos.” And no one plays the game the other way round by replying, “If you will only step inside, the things that look to you like instincts and taboos will suddenly reveal their real and transcendental nature.” That, in fact, is the whole basis of the specifically “modern” type of thought.

And is it not, you will ask, a very sensible basis? For, after all, we are often deceived by things from the inside. For example, the girl who looks so wonderful while we’re in love, may really be a very plain, stupid, and disagreeable person. The savage’s dance to Nyonga does not really cause the crops to grow. Having been so often deceived by looking along, are we not well advised to trust only to looking at? In fact to discount all these inside experiences?

Well, no. There are two fatal objections to discounting them all. And the first is this. You discount them in order to think more accurately. But you can’t think at all—and therefore, of course, can’t think accurately—if you have nothing to think about. A physiologist, for example, can study pain and find out that it “is” (whatever is means) such and such neural events. But the word “pain” would have no meaning for him unless he had “been inside” by actually suffering. If he had never looked along pain he simply wouldn’t know what he was looking at. The very subject for his inquiries from outside exists for him only because he has, at least once, been inside. This case is not likely to occur, because every man has felt pain.

But it is perfectly easy to go on all your life giving explanations of religion, love, morality, honour, and the like, without having been inside any of them. And if you do that, you are simply playing with counters. You go on explaining a thing without knowing what it is. That is why a great deal of contemporary thought is, strictly speaking, thought about nothing—all the apparatus of thought busily working in a vacuum.

The other objection is this: let us go back to the tool shed. I might have discounted what I saw when looking along the beam (i.e., the leaves moving and the sun) on the ground that it was “really only a strip of dusty light in a dark shed”. That is, I might have set up as “true” my “side vision” of the beam. But then that side vision is itself an instance of the activity we call seeing. And this new instance could also be looked at from outside. I could allow a scientist to tell me that what seemed to be a beam of light in a shed was “really only an agitation of my own optic nerves”. And that would be just as good (or as bad) a bit of debunking as the previous one. The picture of the beam in the tool shed would now have to be discounted just as the previous picture of the trees and the sun had been discounted. And then, where are you? In other words, you can step outside one experience only by stepping inside another.

Therefore, if all inside experiences are misleading, we are always misled. The cerebral physiologist may say, if he chooses, that the mathematician’s thought is “only” tiny physical movements of the grey matter. But then what about the cerebral physiologist’s own thought at that very moment? A second physiologist, looking at it, could pronounce it also to be only tiny physical movements in the first physiologist’s skull. Where is the rot to end?

The answer is that we must never allow the rot to begin. We must, on pain of idiocy, deny from the very outset the idea that looking at is, by its own nature, intrinsically truer or better than looking along. One must look both along and at everything. In particular cases we shall find reason for regarding the one or the other vision as inferior. Thus the inside vision of rational thinking must be truer than the outside vision which sees only movements of the grey matter; for if the outside vision were the correct one, all thought (including this thought itself) would be valueless, and this is self-contradictory. You cannot have a proof that no proofs matter.

On the other hand, the inside vision of the savage’s dance to Nyonga may be found deceptive because we find reason to believe that crops and babies are not really affected by it. In fact, we must take each case on its merits. But we must start with no prejudice for or against either kind of looking. We do not know in advance whether the lover or the psychologist is giving the more correct account of love, or whether both accounts are equally correct in different ways, or whether both are equally wrong. We just have to find out. But the period of brow-beating has got to end.2′

Interestingly, those who recount their prayer journeys, seem to fall into one or other of these types of looking: flippant and skeptical (looking at) or bold and emotional (looking along), both of which are the very ‘brow-beating’ that Lewis is warning us against. Hence, in the spirit of his insight, this convoluted and much-interrupted story of my own journey from childhood will be attempting to do both types of looking at the same time: mingling the point of view of a boy growing-up with occasional tangents and ‘looking-at’ commentaries by others.

The writers of the New Testament were confronted with the same problem, and in a defence of those writings, one commentator has this to say: ‘The New Testament is a language event. Behind it’s particular forms lies a particular life experience and a language-shaping faith.’ And he adds that well-meaning but misguided interpreters of the New Testament—in order to make these assertions more palatable to modern minds—have ‘restricted its meaning to existential concepts, ‘thereby saying that the NT tells us only about ourselves; not about things and the way they are and the way they happen.’3

There are experiences in my story too, where—because they have opened doors of sanity and grace, which also ring true with the New Testament—I claim that they are in fact about ‘things and the way they are and they way they happen’. Inevitably conclusions like that lead a young boy to some head- on collisions with his fellow human beings and even with the hopes and dreams of his own inner-world. And there are many such head-on collisions in this journey, which has really become a kind of prayer-quest through a labyrinth of personal pains, family glories and personal tragedies; community joys and community squabbles.

2   Originally published in The Coventry Evening Telegraph (July 17, 1945); reprinted in God in the Dock (Eerdmans, 1970; 212-15).

3  p.477 Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels quoting A.Wilder, The Language of the Gospels. 1964.

‘What Cannot Be Measured Does Not Exist’*

In session 4 (The Kingdom and Wholeness) of our upcoming Imaginative Mission Intensive at Burrabadine we will look at the way our society got itself into a nasty pickle by asserting that there is only one way of knowing: what NT Wright calls the ‘privileged position given to science and its “test-tube epistemology**”‘. It was because of this assumption that the West found itself trying to manage a ‘split’ personality where it talked of faithfulness and truth in the realm of work and science (downstairs) but it was ‘every man for himself’ in the realm of values (upstairs). As a result we were forced down the road of cold pragmatism where we now live—the no-man’s-land between ‘fact’: what can be measured, and ‘value’: what ‘cannot be measured’ and therefore by implication ‘does not exist’. This is what thinkers are now describing as a crisis of meaning, or, as another writer has described it, ‘a crisis of integrity.’1 ‘Most people function as modernists and post-modernists, depending on the context … they live fragmented lives … the opposition between facts and values has become the main obstacle to living as whole persons with a consistent, coherent philosophy of life.’2 It explains why you get ‘that look’ when you begin to talk of meaning, faithfulness and love in certain contexts—your hearer is nervous because you’re talking of what is not supposed to exist.

1. Pearcey N. Saving Leonardo p.44 B&H Publishing 2010

2. Ibid p.29

* unsure of the source for this quote, which sums up the Logical Positivism of Dawkins & co. that was discredited long ago by another—then—atheist philosopher, Anthony Flew

** epistemology is the study of the justification of belief