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Fiction: Australian Fiction and Religion


Evidence of indigenous habitation of Australia dates back some forty or fifty thousand years before European settlement. As Mudrooroo (previously Colin Johnson, b. 1939) noted in The Indigenous Literature of Australia, Aboriginal oral literature contains accounts of the wanderings of the creative ancestors who shaped the land and people, but the most sacred aspects of these stories were reserved for initiates. As the white Australian governments of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries discouraged Aboriginal communities from following their cultural and religious practices, many sacred secret stories were lost. Other, more public, stories often suffered in translation from Aboriginal languages, their mythological dimensions reduced to the status of fairy tales or simplistic creation stories for children.

Indigenous Fiction and Religion

Aboriginal people were introduced to the Roman alphabet by the British following their landing at Sydney Cove in 1788. Christian missionaries were zealous educators, and their influence has been seen in the "strong current of Christianity" that runs through Aboriginal writing (Mudrooroo, 1997, p. 10). The first acknowledged Aboriginal writer, David Unaipon (18731967), was raised on a Christian mission and wove biblical values and classical allusions into traditional Ngarrindjeri stories in his booklet Native Legends (c. 1929). European Australians, including Ronald and Catherine Berndt and T. G. H. Strehlow, compiled major collections of oral Aboriginal literature.

White children were introduced to indigenous characters and mythology by white writers, most notably novelist Patricia Wrightson (b. 1921) in The Rocks of Honey (1960) and the Wirrun Trilogy (19771981). Although Wrightson tried to dispel the white blindness that denied Aboriginals their human dignity, and although she was scrupulous in her research, indicating where she had invented material, this aspect of her work has since polarized opinion: did it hasten white appreciation of Aboriginal spirituality, or did it obscure the nature of that spirituality?

In 1964, against a background of increasing demands for justice and Aboriginal land rights, Kath Walker (later Oodgeroo Noonuccal, 19201993) published a book of poetry, We Are Going, now credited as the beginning of a new phase of Aboriginal writing, one which spoke directly to white Australians. Much contemporary Aboriginal writing is concerned with retrieving and reclaiming the past and with establishing individual and communal identity, as demonstrated by the popularity of the autobiographical and biographical forms. The first indigenous novel to be published, Karobran (1978) by Monica Clare (19241973), was based on the author's experiences growing up in welfare institutions and white foster homes.

The disintegration of Aboriginal community life because of (and despite) white intervention, the physical and emotional illnesses caused by disregard of sacred rituals, the saving power of the old ways, and the critical importance of the land to the health of the community and the individual are all played out in Kim Scott's novel, True Country (1993). In his story of Billy, a part-Aboriginal schoolteacher who is posted to a remote settlement in the far north of Australia, Scott (b. 1957) casts an unflinching eye over the corrupt behavior of both whites and Aborigines who ignore the presence of the sacred and refuse to honor their obligations. There is a suggestion that, for Aboriginals and whites alike, Christianity might survive if the concept of God were to change, if God were to be thought of "as a great spirit, a creator spirit, an artist. A creative force behind the world, living in the world, and giving ceremony and the land." "Maybe," Scott's sympathetic white Catholic priest says, "they, we, will end up with a new God here, some sort of major spirit from the Dreaming or whatever, who named everything and usor should I say the Aborigines?and created this special relationship. People, creation, the land" (Scott, 1993, p. 221). Billy's own moment of understanding, his acceptance into the Aboriginal spirit community and the true country, comes as he nearly drowns, swallowed by the snakelike river, the Rainbow Serpent, the Aboriginal figure of divinity. In this spiritual rebirth the abiding presence of the law, the unity of nature and spirit, and the possibility of hope are affirmed.

Postsettlement Religion and Fiction

Since the arrival of the Europeans, Christianity has been the dominant religious influence in Australia, although the number of Australians claiming to be Christian declined throughout the twentieth century. In the 2001 census 68 percent of the population claimed Christian affiliation, but church surveys suggest that only around 20 percent of these people attend religious services. The fastest-growing religions in Australia between 1996 and 2001, according to the census, were Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam, but they accounted for only 3.9 percent of the population. Much of their growth has been the result of immigration from Southeast Asia and the Middle East.

The Australian attitude to Christianity is ambivalent, stemming from the origins of the colony as a penal settlement where the church was expected to enforce good order among the inhabitants. The brutality of the penal system was graphically illustrated in the novel For the Term of His Natural Life (1874) by Marcus Clarke (18461881). Early writers such as Clarke, Joseph Furphy (18431912) and Henry Lawson (18691922) had no sympathy for institutionalized Christianity in their fiction, praising instead Christlike behavior among the convicts, settlers, and bushmen who were battling to survive. The concept of mutual support among men became enshrined as a quasi-religious nationalist creed known as mateship, which has been cited as evidence of widespread Australian adherence to Christ's teaching of love for one's neighbor. Attempts by some theologians in the late 1970s and the mid-1980s to use mateship as the foundation of a specifically Australian Christianity failed, however, because the concept is fundamentally secular and is vulnerable to misuse by sexist, racist, and anti-intellectual interests.

Historically, the Christian churches did little to win the minds of Australians. In 1977 Richard Campbell complained of the lack of "a substantial and continuous intellectual tradition" in Australian religion, noting the absence of great theological colleges, the reliance on imported theologians, and the emphasis on vocational training, rather than "intellectual critique of the church's language about God" (p. 179). In the late 1970s, theologians, tired of making do with a derivative European religion, turned to literature and the arts to find ways to address God in the vernacular. Two of the pioneering commentators, Dorothy Green (19151991) and Veronica Brady (b. 1929), were practicing literary critics.

Although a body of novels addresses the experience of growing up within a restrictive religious traditionCatholic, Greek Orthodox, fundamentalist, Jewishthese works have been overlooked in discussions about Australian theology. Also overlooked have been books by internationally oriented novelists such as Morris West (19161999), whose Vatican trilogy was published 1959 and 1990, and Colleen McCullough (b. 1937), author of The Thorn Birds (1977), and works of Holocaust and refugee literature, including Schindler's Ark (1982) by Thomas Keneally (b. 1935).

Of most interest have been "literary" writers and works set in Australia that have been seen to comment on the nature of God and the individual's relationship with God, the individual's behavior towards others, and the role of nature as an agent of redemption and as a sign of God's presence. At the heart of these works has been the wish to demonstrate the continuing relevance of Christianity, or, at least, to find a way of expressing the sacred within the context of a (post-) Christian culture.

Relating to God

In 1976 Dorothy Green detected the presence of religion and religious feeling in the work of most important Australian novelists in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, even "amongst those who would describe themselves as atheist, agnostic or indifferent" (p. 9). She was able to come to such a generous assessment because she was looking for evidence of adherence to the second Great Commandment, that is, "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself" (Matt. 12:31).

Had she concentrated exclusively on a literary preoccupation with the nature of God, or even on works that bore witness to the first Great Commandment, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul and with all thy mind " (Matt. 12:30), the result would have been different, for few Australian writers have been prepared to engage directly with God across a body of work. Green argued for Martin Boyd (18931972) as the author who most completely represented the fusion of the two commandments, an author who believed that "the Christian story corresponds with man's experience on earth" (p. 25). Boyd, however, spent most of his adult life in Europe, and although his novels comprising the Langton tetralogy (published between 1952 and 1962) used Australian material, his ongoing influence on Australian theological thinking has been negligible compared with that of Patrick White.

It is Patrick White (19121990) whom Christian commentators most often regard as Australia's preeminent religious author, although White wrote (in a letter dated August 15, 1985) that he could not see himself as a "true Christian. My faith is put together out of bits and pieces. I am a believer, but not the kind most 'Christians' would accept" (Marr, 1994, p. 604). White did not write novels for the benefit of theologians. Claims, for example, that his novel Voss, about an ill-fated desert expedition by a German explorer, represents the archetypal Australian Christian parable of suffering and redemption are at odds with White's own description of Voss as a "megalomaniac explorer" with "delusions of divinity" (September 11, 1956, Marr, 1994, p. 107). White does not comfort his readers but challenges them, as he wrote on May 10, 1970: "I suppose what I am increasingly intent on trying to do in my books is to give professed unbelievers glimpses of their own unprofessed faith. I believe most people have a religious faith, but are afraid that by admitting it they will forfeit their right to be considered intellectuals" (Marr, 1994, p. 363).

While the academy has been unable to deny the intellectual scope of White's writing, some of its members mistrust religious readings of his works. Ambiguity is one of White's strengths and also a reminder that any article on religious themes in literature is entirely subjective. This can be illustrated by a key scene from White's The Tree of Man in which the old man, Stan Parker, cornered by a young evangelist who is pressing him as to whether he believes in God, points to a gob of his own spittle "glittering intensely and personally on the ground": "'That is God,' he said" (p. 476). The scene has been read both as proof that Stan has moved to agnostic secularism and as verification that he has achieved illumination.

The most thorough exploration of religious elements in White's novels The Tree of Man (1955), Voss (1957), Riders in the Chariot (1961), and The Solid Mandala (1966) can be found in Peter Beatson's The Eye in the Mandala (1977). Beatson argues that to make sense of White's work, it is necessary to accept the presence of a Hidden God behind the material world. White's characters, through "their emotional responses and the assumptions of their cultures," try to comprehend the nature of the Hidden God. But although they always fall short of the truth, this is not to say that God is completely remote from his creation: on the contrary, "every encounter in the human and natural worlds is potentially a moment of dialogue between the individual and God. Union with the Hidden God is not achieved in White's novels by withdrawal from the things of the senses, but by acquiescence to all the conditions of the fallen world in which man finds himself" (pp. 910).

Relating to Other People

Christ-figures are generally absent in Australian literature, despite the remarkable presence of Mordecai ben Moshe Himmelfarb, Patrick White's Orthodox Jewish post-Holocaust refugee in Riders in the Chariot. Blamed for Christ's crucifixion, he is himself "crucified" by his Australian workmates; he dies on Good Friday and is given a Christian burial: White's point is that all men are the same and all faiths are one.

Himmelfarb, like other characters who might evince Christlike attributes, is not complete in himself: he cannot be redeemed until he learns to accept and give love. In Australian literature the way to God is usually not through excessive penance and self-purification, but through loyalty, compassion, and loving kindness. This is seen clearly, for instance, in the fiction of Thea Astley (b. 1925).

Astley is usually depicted as a social satirist, but she was raised a Catholic and has been a consistent critic of the institutional church, most often Catholic, but of any denomination that demands mindless adherence from its followers. In her early books she criticized the church hierarchy for its pomposity and insincerity, implying, as she did in her first novel, Girl with a Monkey (1958), that true spiritual experience was to be had not at a mass rally with an unctuous bishop but with a small group gathered with a Franciscan priest in a community dance hall amidst tropical undergrowth, where humanity and nature come together to partake of the eternal mystery, the transcendent made immanent in the mass. Her later books, including Vanishing Points (1992), attack the patriarchal restrictions of church leadership.

The most sympathetic characters in her novella "Inventing the Weather" (in Vanishing Points ) are three elderly nuns who, against the wishes of the church, are living with and working for a remote Aboriginal community. Above the kitchen sink is a wall plaque that reads: "Where there is no love, put love and there you will find love" (p. 182). In Astley's fiction love is the paramount virtue. Love is not necessarily found in the church (the pettiness and legalism of the church crushes the vocations of the most humane religious in The Slow Natives [1965] and A Boat Load of Home Folk [1968]) but is more likely seen in transactions between fallible human beings in acts of kindness. Astley is critical of those who seek individual salvation, removing themselves from the responsibilities of daily life: in her books the divine is found through community.

Despite Astley's use of Catholic imagery, her critique of religion, and her passionate commitment to issues of social justice, her work has been ignored in discussions about developing an Australian theology. She is not alone in this, however, as the writings of other women, including Elizabeth Jolley (b. 1923), Helen Garner (b. 1942), and Marion Halligan (b. 1940), who also value the practice of caritas over individual salvation, are similarly ignored, except by exponents of feminist theology. It would seem that because their work fails to reproduce certain "sacred" stereotypes, they are thought to have nothing to contribute to religion in Australia.

Nature and the Sacred

The first European settlers found themselves in an alien landscape that could not be captured in conventional language and imagery. European expressions of Christianity were similarly inadequate in a place where nature seemed superiorand indifferentto human beings. The gradual shift over time, in both theology and literature, from depicting the country as hostile wilderness to sacred site is a measure of people's increasing spiritual at-homeness.

Veronica Brady, in her treatment of Clarke's For the Term of His Natural Life, notes how the novel, "like many substantial works of Australian fiction, echoes the psalms and the prophets of the Old Testament" in its awareness of the sheer power of nature (1981, p. 5). And there is a thread in Australian theology that posits the wilderness, most often figured as the desert, as a place representing humanity's fall from grace, a place of suffering that may purify the individual pilgrim. More recently, and perhaps under the influence of Aboriginal spirituality, the desert is seen as a repository of the sacred, a site where, freed from the distractions of the everyday, one might encounter God. Reverence has been afforded novels that use a desert setting (White's Voss, Randolph Stow's To the Islands [1958], Thomas Keneally's Woman of the Inner Sea [1992]), but until Tim Winton (b. 1960) started writing novels set in riverside Perth and coastal Western Australia, little attention was paid to spiritual readings of the moist or settled areas.

It was Winton's overwhelmingly popular saga, Cloudstreet (1991), set between the 1940s and 1960s, that caused theologians to look seriously at the playing out of religious values among suburban families. Commentators such as Michael Goonan have picked up on the way in which Winton likens the house on Cloud Street, the home of two battling families, the Pickles and the Lambs, to the Australian continent, a "vast indoors," a "big emptiness" that almost paralyses them "with spaces and surfaces that yield nothing to them" (Winton, p. 41). As Goonan notes, a crucial question underlies the text of Cloudstreet : whether it is possible for non-Aboriginal Australians to belong to the land. For Goonan, resolution comes when the key characters follow the advice of the enigmatic Aboriginal man who appears at crucial moments in the story, most often urging them to return to the house at Cloudstreet, not to sell it, impressing upon the Lambs and the Pickles the importance of family. It is as though Winton is opening up the possibility for spiritual healing of white Australians, should they be prepared to acknowledge key aspects of Aboriginal culture and spirituality, the centrality of land and community.

In his tribute to the Western Australian coastline, Land's Edge, Winton has written that "everything that lives is holy and somehow integrated" (p. 50). Other writers might be less forthright in speaking of their beliefs, but, nevertheless, their work can refresh the religious imagination and realize the hope of reconciliation.


Astley, Thea. Vanishing Points. Port Melbourne, Australia, 1992.

Beatson, Peter. The Eye in the Mandala. Patrick White: A Vision of Man and God. Sydney, 1977. An enlightening study of White's novels up to and including The Eye of the Storm (1973), revealing the somewhat unorthodox Christianity that underlies White's artistic universe. Beatson respects the texts and refrains from twisting them to fit his own theories.

Brady, Veronica. A Crucible of Prophets: Australians and the Question of God. Sydney, 1981. A groundbreaking study of the way nineteenth- and twentieth-century Australian male novelists address questions about God in their work.

Brown, Cavan. Pilgrim through This Barren Land. Sutherland, New South Wales, 1991. Uses the journals of the early European explorers and nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature to flesh out a desert-based Australian spirituality.

Campbell, Richard. "The Character of Australian Religion." Meanjin 36, no. 2 (July 1977): 178188.

Clare, Monica. Karobran: The Story of an Aboriginal Girl. Chippendale, New South Wales, 1978.

Goonan, Michael. A Community of Exiles: Exploring Australian Spirituality. Homebush, New South Wales, 1996. Discusses Tim Winton's Cloudstreet and Tom Keneally's Woman of the Inner Sea in relation to the Jewish experience of exile in the stories of Tobit and Esther.

Green, Dorothy. "Sheep or Goats? Some Religious Ideas in Australian Literature." St Mark's Review (June 1976): 329.

Heiss, Anita M. Dhuuluu-Yala (to talk straight): Publishing Indigenous Literature. Canberra, 2003.

Lindsay, Elaine. Rewriting God: Spirituality in Contemporary Australian Women's Fiction. Amsterdam and Atlanta, Ga., 2000. Critiques desert spirituality and develops an alternative women's spirituality with reference to the fictions of Thea Astley, Elizabeth Jolley, and Barbara Hanrahan.

Marr, David, ed. Patrick White Letters. Milsons Point, New South Wales, 1994.

Mudrooroo. The Indigenous Literature of AustraliaMilli Milli Wangka. South Melbourne, Australia, 1997.

Murray, John. "Inheriting the Land? Some Literary and Ethical Issues in the Use of Indigenous Material by an Australian Children's Writer, 19601990." In Religion Literature and the Arts Conference Proceedings 1994, edited by Michael Griffith and Ross Keating, pp. 279288. Sydney, 1995.

Rossiter, Richard, and Lyn Jacobs, eds. Reading Tim Winton. Pymble, New South Wales, 1993. Includes an article by Yvonne Miels, "Singing the Great Creator: The Spiritual in Tim Winton's Novels," pp. 2944.

Scott, Kim. True Country. South Fremantle, Western Australia, 1993.

Thompson, Roger C. Religion in Australia: A History. South Melbourne, Australia, 1994.

Webby, Elizabeth, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Australian Literature. Cambridge, U.K., 2000.

White, Patrick. The Tree of Man. London, 1955; reprint, Harmondsworth, Victoria, 1967.

Wilde, William H, Joy Hooton, and Barry Andrews, eds. The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature. Oxford, 1985; reprint, 1986.

Winton, Tim. Cloudstreet. Melbourne, 1991; reprint, Ringwood, Victoria, 1998.

Winton, Tim. Land's Edge. Sydney, 1993; reprint, 1998.

Elaine Lindsay (2005)

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