Looking East from Hilltop Farm towards Gladstone South Australia

Telling a new story

Jung would say that my father participates fully in the myth of his people. My father and other Christians would wince at that statement, but Jung understood myth in a broad sense. I would say it this way: The Christian story is my father's only story, and he lives completely in that story. People like my father move history along by living within the reality of their stories. They are immersed in the plasma of human history, swimming through it, surrounded by it, making it happen.

These words by Gordon Atkinson sum up my need for a new Christianity. I can not participate fully in the myth of my people.

Understand what I mean by this.

I am not talking about issues of scholarship. Scholarship does not necessarily mean losing full immersion in the myth. I hear friends who are skeptical of literal interpretations of miracle stories- I don’t believe he walked on the water- who still live in the story that Jesus died for our sins and rose again on the third day. They use that very language.

Neither am I talking about a wholesale disbelief which says “None of this is true,” and abandons the faith. The Christian faith is dealing in truth. It has discovered, and is digesting and living out, real insights into what it means to be human and to be alive. I emphatically believe it is dealing in real insights.

Rather, I am like the Pitjantjatjara people with whom I once lived, caught between two worlds. Although their parents knew a time without the European intruders, they drive cars, use telephones and internet, and often use English words in conversation because they work better for the situation. But they can never not be Pitjantjatjara. It is their very being.

And they cannot become an Anglo Saxon Australian like me. For all its technological prowess, and despite its hold on political power, that Australia is wrong. To assimilate, to adopt it wholesale as they say, would not just be some sort of cosmetic denial of being Pitjantjatjara that does not really matter.. It would deny, I think, realities they know to be true. Realities that are not easily deniable; realities which are part of being alive.

Out of the collision of two realities, two cultural myths which claim to tell the whole story, they must forge their own identity and reality, and live in the reality of that new story. Some seem amazingly successful at this. Some, like me, struggle along in a half told story full of inconsistencies and bizarre clashes between sub plots. For some, life falls apart with all the fragments too hard to piece together.

We all “swim in the plasma of human history” as Gordon puts it. But there are times and places where the myth, the old story, must be reforged, and retold, or we drown. Clearly, Pitjantjatjara people, and many indigenous peoples, have had a prolonged period of retelling forced upon them. It is not so clear to we Westerners, dominant and wealthy, that the same is true for us. We think, or pretend, that we are in control.

In reality, we too, live in a collision of worlds. All through my life, and gathering pace, secular Australians have been telling the story that we are getting free of religion. We are growing up. Despite wars, and the fear of nuclear holocaust, my parents’ generation have lived in a climate of economic growth and technological improvement since their childhood. So too, mine. It has been almost convincing to call this progress, not collision, even though we hold much nostalgia for previous values and simpler times.

Close to or beyond peak oil, and facing ecological collapse and climate change that is less theory and more actual, perhaps we might wonder if all this “progress” is better understood as a collision of worlds and values. It has been just as myth-challenging, life-changing and survival-threatening as the arrival of the first white mappers and trappers in the Pitjantjatjara lands. But we have been largely blind.

Clearly, for those of a religious bent, it is not possible to live fully within the old myth. We are too aware of the challenges scientific research has brought about. We are confronted with different races and creeds in a way unimaginable to our grandparents. Yet we cannot abandon the truths of the Faith. There are some things only religion seems to express.

No matter how dissatisfied we have become with religious descriptions of reality, there is nothing coming from the popular stories of modern culture which replaces them. No one believes the myths of modern consumer society. Even its own advertising appeals to the deeper truths of family, of love, and of beauty. We like things, and they distract us from the pain of life, but they do not make a life worth living. Our very caressing Facebook to life on that shiny iPhone, before we go to the toilet in the morning, is a sign of our longing for deeper connections.

We know the truth of Wordsworth-

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;

and as much as “we have given our hearts away”, we claw them back, struggling to understand life, death, love, despair and purpose. All the traditional religious questions remain. The difference is that the conversations proceed without “God talk.”

The great gift my Pitjantjatjara friends and family gave me was showing me the need to forge my own identity, and tell my own story from the fragments that follow this collision of worlds. To ignore the new world would be to retreat into irrelevance, and I suspect, to hold to now sad old dreams I can no longer believe. Even if I go out into the desert to the farthest water hole, I will see the night satellites writing indelible challenges across the old stories of the stars. For all their distance, these satellites are just as scarifying of the old story as if the shot lines of an oil company are thunderously graded past my last retreat.

And it is obvious that if I am assimilated to, and psychologically erased by, the consumer religion that graces my TV screen, I will be destroyed as fully, and with as much agony, as any creek bed alcoholic. I must take on the telling a new story out of the fragments of the collision. I must tell a new reality in which I can live.

It would be arrogant to think that my situation corresponds with that of Pitjantjatjara friends. They suffered far more than an assault on world view. Land was stolen or destroyed, ravaging disease introduced, and children were stolen. People were murdered. I live among the aggressors. Yet from a much harder situation, the Pitjantjatjara people I knew were retelling their myths to recapture the truth they had already known or glimpsed. I find the same attribute in the people I truly admire in my own culture. I also see in my culture, and take no pleasure in it, a mirroring of the lives of the Pitjantjatjara people who were not able to manage a re-telling; the ones dying in creek bed hell holes.

In fact, as I have hinted above, I think many of us later migrants to Australia have not noticed the collision of worlds. We think we are doing OK. If we can get beyond our condescension, aboriginal people who have dealt now with a couple of centuries of collision and destruction, may have much to teach us about surviving as a culture!


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