I have just completed reading a very worthy biography of one of my seminary lecturers, the Rev'd Professor Dr Athol Gill. He was Professor of New Testament studies at Whitley College, the Baptist Theological College of Victoria from 1976 until his untimely death in March 1992 aged 54.
Pidwell, H A Gentle Bunyip: The Athol Gill Story Seaview Press: Adelaide 2007
Athol was a marvelous NT scholar but he taught in both Testaments, having a love for both the Gospels and the Prophets. His passion for these texts inspired in him a passion for a radical approach to living the Christian life inspired by various social and theological meovements of his day.
Before he came to Melbourne, he had somewhat controversially started the "House of Hope" in Brisbane where he and others began to explore this radical new kind of Christian discipleship. The authorities in his beloved Baptist Church were certainly perplexed by this and though his counter-cultural approach to the Christian life would undermine the established church structures too much.
On arrival in Melbourne, and in tandem with taking up his duties at Whitley College, he initiated a search for a place to start another community house. Within weeks he had identified the Clifton Hill Baptist Church where its remaining 10 members were willing to gamble with Athol's promise of new life. Before long, "The House of the Gentle Bunyip" was born and eventually the Community Church of St Mark.
"New and prospective members were taught a theology of mission through careful study of the Gospel of Mark." (p103) The mission of the community took three basic forms - serving the churches through training, camps, ministerial support and theological education; serving the community in which it was situated with a coffee house, street theatre, concerts, special events and publishing; and engaging in social issues such as providing counselling, forums, supporting indigenous issues, services for single parents, the homeless and political lobbying.
All of this was to happen out of a community of people, single and married, who lived together, where possible, and shared a common life. Patterns for their life together were very similar to those followed by monastic communities, although Athol never drew attention to this. They were bound to meet for Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer each day, following a pattern for The Office found in the Anglican Australian Prayer book, and following a lectionary of daily Scripture reading created by Athol that ensured that the whole of the NT was read each year and the OT was read in a three-year cycle.
Members engaged in 5hrs of ministry a week, tithed their income for the community and generally contributed to the common life.
This extraordinary life was incredibly attractive to many idealistic young people during the years I was in seminary and a number of those who studied with me were members of "The Bunyip" as it was affectionately known.
I enjoyed being reminded of the people and times of my Seminary training as I read through this book. I was also encouraged to ponder these things in relation to a dream we have been nurturing of establishing an intentional community as a place for spiritual formation and Christian mission.
One of the issues that are raised in "A Gentle Bunyip" is the nature of leadership in such communities. Clearly, someone needs to be the driving thinker that shapes the vision and mission of the community, someone needs to be the bearer of the story that originates the community, someone needs to create the myths that inspire others to join. Athol did all of these. He sought to do it collaboratively, using a leadership team, but at the end of the day his death left such a gap in the leadership that within a couple of years people had drifted off - the community died.
On Tuesday I will be attending the 80th Birthday bash of another friend and mentor who has known me since I was born, but I did not notice him until I was about 15. Brian was a secondary school teacher before training for ministry in the same seminary I went to many years later.
He had a passion for engagement with young people in the church and despite a disappointing experience as Director of Youth Ministry for the whole state continued to work with young people through the church's camping programs - which was where I came across him. Having returned to teaching he took an early retirement option so that he could take up an honorary position as chaplain in the secondary school in which he had taught.
In his latter years, he developed an interest in and passion for the ancient traditions of spirituality in the church - Christian meditation in particular. He also came to the view that the struggle of many in ministry was related to a poorly formed spiritual life.
Thus began a journey that would lead to him encouraging ministers in his church more widely to explore the possibilities of the ancient Christian traditions as a support for their ministry, and the establishment of a Centre for Christian Spirituality in his local church - a place for training in and the practice of spirituality.
There is no doubt that Brian was the driving force for the establishment of this centre, although he clearly did not do it alone. He, too, was the forger and articulater of the vision.
He was smart enough to recognise that there was a need for succession planning and quite intentionally groomed up another to take his place, but I am sure that he would reflect that even so, it has been the hardest part of the life of the community - passing the mantle on successfully to new leadership that can maintain the evolutionary development of the community in a manner that is consistent with the original vision.
I will be interested in seeing how much of this he shares on this milestone occasion on Tuesday.
Tomorrow we will somewhat prematurely take down our Christmas Decorations - a task usually undertaken on the Feast of Epiphany.
Since just before Christmas I have been reading the book "The First Christmas" by Marcus J Borg and John Dominic Crossman. This reading was undertaken as part of my Advent disciplines and I have really enjoyed immersing myself in this close examination of the nature of the Birth Narratives in Matthew and Luke. I was further blessed with more Borg books as Christmas gifts, so I will be reading a bit over the next few weeks.
I have always been aware of the way in which the traditional Nativity story is the result of a harmonizing or blending of two very different narratives into a single story. However, I never paid enough attention to the details of each separate story to recognise the logical and historical inconsistencies such an approach created.
For example in Matthew Mary & Joseph already lived in Bethlehem while Luke has them living in Nazareth. Similarly, Luke makes no mention of the prospect of Joseph divorcing Mary when he discovers she is pregnant as we find in Matthew's account. The two stories are so different from each other that if each was purporting to be an historical account of the events surrounding Jesus' birth, one would have to be declared a fabrication - but which one.
Fact, Fable or Parable In trying to understand how this came about, and how we should approach these stories today, Borg proposes that our obsession with the idea that the only things that are "true" are "facts" is a product of relatively recent times (from the period of The Enlightenment in the 17th century). Since the development of the scientific method in that time as well as new approaches to historiography Western people have thought about life and the world in completely different ways than their ancestors did.
The questions we instinctively ask of life are "How do we know?" and "What is true?" as well as "What is real?" and "What is possible?" This way of thinking has led to what Huston Smith called "fact fundamentalism" and according to it, if something isn't factual then it isn't true.
In addition to these changes in our world view, The Enlightenment asserted that "what is indubitably real is the time-space universe of matter and energy, operating accord with natural laws of cause and effect."
It only takes a brief consideration of these matters to realise that they pose an immense dilemma for the interpreter - If the authors of the text were not bound to facts as we are and could cope with supernatural events alongside natural events as euqally real, how do we make modern sense of what they wrote?
Borg introduces two very interesting interpretive devises that help deal legitimately with the different approaches Matthew and Luke have taken to the same story. Firstly he proposes that we look at the narratives as "neither fact nor fable, but as parables". Parable is a form of speech by which truth and meaning is conveyed without being reliant on factuality of historicity - the story of The Good Samaritan is cited as an example to help us understand how this works.
Along the way he makes the observation tha almost all of Jesus' parables had a subversive element, challenging social, religious and political assumptions and norms.
Secondly. he suggests that the birth naratives are like an overture to an orchestral piece. The term is derived from the French ouverture which was simply the opening part of a work that served as a summary, synthesis, metaphor or symbol of the whole. He cites some literary examples of overture but by bringing the two ideas together he lays the groundwork for a completely new interpretive approach to the birth narratives.
Matthew 1-2, considered as a Parabolic Overture, sets the scene and tone, as well as providing a summary of the Gospel that follows. Similarly, Luke 1-2 can be regarded as a potted version of all that will follow in both Luke and Acts.
What I found most satisfying about this was that rather than explaining everything away as the liberal-sceptical approach can sometimes do with Biblical material, Borg has provided an interpretive approach that enables the truth of the narrative to come to its fullness in a way that a merely factual approach to the interpretive task could not.
Gospel as Subversion The consistent thread that arises from this interpretive approach is that the story is utterly subversive. Everything that is said about Jesus' birth is connected with Roman theology (not Roman Catholic, but Roman Empire and the emperors/Caesars) and it would have been plain to first century Christians and observers of Christianity that to call Jesus "Son of God" and "Saviour of the world" was to challenge the Emperor's claim to these titles. The purpose of the Birth Narratives was to assert a superior claim to these titles - each in different ways.
When this approach is taken it doesn't matter that Matthew has Mary and Joseph living in Bethlehem already and that those who visited Jesus were Gentiles, while Luke has them needing to travel to Bethlehem and the birth is acknowledged by a bunch of lowley shepherd folk, presumably Jewish.
It has brought new life to the Birth Narratives for me, helped me understand that it is okay for Mark and John not to even mention it, and given me new ways of understanding a few other tricky theological ideas that we all think are important.
DjittyDjitty (or minor variations of it) is an indigenous word used by both the Nyoonga people and the Yamatji people for willy wagtails.
This bird has spiritual significance, sometimes as a portent of death but more often as a sign of judgement between right and wrong. DjittyDjitty is a tenacious bird and will take on wedgetail eagles and crows that fly into their air space.
DjittyDjitty has become very special to me.
I am a child of the fifties and so grew up and studied through the sixties and seventies - I think I am young enough to remember the sixties, so believe me I was there. I have lived in both suburban and rural parts of Western Australia and lived in suburban Melbourne for 11 years.
My professional life has been diverse, working as a primary school teacher first of all, but ranging over church work, tertiary education and training, aged care, welfare and even disability services.