(This post follows on from A Town Called Bell)
We were riding our bikes back into the town of Bell after a long ride over the back roads.
It was mid afternoon and we were tired and looking forward to getting back to the caravan park and having a shower.
Then we saw it: a small wooden church – Catholic – and a sign: Bell Biblical Garden.
What was that?
Never thought such a thing could exist.
As tired as we were, curiosity got the better of us.
We put our bikes under a tree and went and had a look at the Biblical Garden.
Bell Biblical Garden was just that, a garden tended lovingly by the local priest.
In a parched land devastated by years of drought, a flourishing garden was a sight alright: an oasis in a desert.
Normally a garden like this – there were small ponds too – was nothing special. In this town it was.
The garden was constructed around the theme of the judgement of Jesus and his crucifixion – a graphic, timeless scene which has echoed through Christianity since its very inception: an apostle of tolerance, peace and love, convicted on trumped charges and then forced to drag a heavy wooden cross passed jeering crowds and then nailed to the cross and left to die, slowly, painfully.
Many conclusions might be drawn from this parable: the connivance of the rich (the Jewish priests) against the poor; the ugliness of military rule (the Romans) over a captive people (the Israelites); the brutality of the masses whipped up into a frenzy of hate and hungry for scapegoats.
Wandering around the garden, I was amused by some of the exhibits, e.g. a colourful tiled portrait of Jesus and before him, two cows and a sheep fashioned out of corrugated iron. A Jesus on the cross rendered in barbed wire.
The Biblical Garden was unmistakably Australian, at least as far as appearances went.
At a certain point however, I was troubled by an underlying sense of incongruity. Of something missing.
What about the fate of the original inhabitants of this country?
Why no mention of this in the Biblical Garden? In this Australian Biblical Garden with its corrugated iron cows and sheep and its barbed wire Christ?
What was the point of endlessly venerating the ancient injustice of the trial, torture and crucifixion of Christ if the church – and its believers – remained indifferent to other examples of injustice that were a lot closer to home?
Perhaps I was extra sensitive to this issue.
Riding a bike over the unsealed back roads of Australia, passed endless wire boundary fences and huge swathes of empty land, I often thought about the original inhabitants of this country. I loved being consumed by the emptiness and solitude, the endless horizons and the total absence of people. Yet there was also the nagging thought: what did this country look like before the white British cleared all the trees and bushes – and exterminated the aborigines?
When he conceived the idea of making a Biblical Garden, I suppose the priest knew his congregation. They wouldn’t attend his services if it meant having their semi-religious veneration of the ‘pioneers’ of this country challenged by another, very different interpretation: Philistines, fuelled by racism and alcohol, shooting down the aborigines. Violent men not an iota better than the Romans and the Jewish priests.
So in his sermons, the priest probably stuck to the usual script: Christ died for our sins. The injustice of his fate reflected our collective guilt. A guilt which we could only free ourselves from through blind faith: regarding religion as a dogma. The world was full of evil because there were so many sinners and unbelievers.
Religion was a cause, not a philosophy.
When the land was taken from the aborigines (who had inhabited it for tens of thousands of years) did any of the men who shot and raped the aborigines ever confess their crimes to the priest?
Unlikely. After all, they regarded the aborigines as subhuman, as animals.
How would the priest have reacted had he received such a confession?
Advise that the guilty party that they beseech the Lord for forgiveness?
Or treat it as a misdemeanour, something equivalent to murdering Jews – the timeless crime of the Christians in Europe justified by blaming them for the death of Christ?
A mystery, human beings. No end to it.
Capable of love and compassion.
Capable of hatred and murder.
Good and Evil in a truly unholy combination.
The church placed itself beyond the realm of normal human beings, beyond their capacity for good and evil. It was an illusion. The church, like every other religious institution, was no different, no better, than the mortal souls it preached to; it was just as vulnerable to good and evil.
There were some churches, notably the Lutheran, which in the early days of white settlement had offered sanctuary to the survivors of the great Australian extermination. They had steeped themselves in beliefs and culture of the aborigines. The best known example of this was the son of Lutheran missionary working in central Australia named Ted Strehlow. As a boy Strehlow grew up on a Lutheran mission in Central Australia and learnt the language of the Aranda people He was sent to Adelaide to be educated. He was exceptionally intelligent and enjoyed a classical education, distinguishing himself in music, English literature and European history. After winning a scholarship to study in London, he returned home disillusioned with Europe and went back to the mission station, where he familiarized himself with the Aranda culture – and learned the language spoken by the elders, which was a different kind of Aranda than the language spoken by the ordinary tribal members. He then spent years writing a book called ‘Songs of Central Australia’. It is and remains one of the greatest books ever written in Australia.
In Songs of Central Australia, Strehlow did something no one had ever done before: he recorded the songs/poems of an aboriginal people and put them into a European context. Firstly, he put the songs of the Aranda people into the notes and bars used by westerners to record their music – pages of his book are filled with musical scores; secondly, he explained the songs in terms of their poetic power and described how they gave meaning to the physical landscape and its plants, insects, animals and geographic features; thirdly, he compared these songs/poems to the tales of the pre-industrial tribes of Europe and described how they addressed similar themes – at the same time, he compared them, in the subtlety and complexity of their form, to the works of great European composers such as Bach and Handel.
When Strehlow finished his enormous work, he was a different kind of Christian.
To take another culture’s religious beliefs changes one’s own belief, I guess.
If only every believer of every religion would embark on a similar journey: to look into another, different religion.
Then we might be free of the madness of fundamentalism.
I had arrived at Bell Biblical Garden feeling exhausted. By the time I got back on my bike, the tiredness had lifted and my mind was invaded by conflicting thoughts. This continued even after returning to Bell’s camping ground and having a shower and something to eat.
It took a startlingly beautiful sunset to quell the questions, the unknowns, the thoughts.
Well said, Peter.