As an Australian
Pentecostal interested in liturgy (or at least explicit use of the word), I
often find myself late to the party, so to speak. If my issue is not
geographical (we’ve improved from a three-month sea journey to a fourteen-hour
flight to Los Angeles), it is denominational. Our liturgical history is
assembled largely in well-told stories. So after enrolling in Fuller
Theological Seminary’s PhD program to engage the topic of Aboriginal reconciliation,
I was surprised to receive a number of loving warnings from well-respected nonindigenous
leaders. Many referenced demonic encounters during Pentecostal camp meetings,
and similar activity at the World Council of Churches’ Canberra assembly in 1991,
where (as relayed to me) many Pentecostal pastors left highly disappointed.
demonic was far from my mind. I had learned that more indigenous Australians
identified as Christian than the wider Australian population (73 percent versus
61.1 percent in the 2011 census),1 while in contrast, 1 percent identified
with traditional religion(s) (6 percent in “very remote” areas).2
With all self-identification, high nominalism can be assumed, and in the case
of Australia, its history of mission by force has contributed to a negative
perception of mission. Yet since the 2006 census, the indigenous figure rises
(from 69 percent), while the nonindigenous one is falling (from 63.9 percent).3
Even so, the visibility of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Christian leaders is
minimal.4 Peggy Brock recognizes the regional contribution of Maori
and Solomon Islander evangelists who travelled into the Australian outback
preaching the gospel, sometimes well before white colonizers.5 And
Hutchinson and Wolffe note Christianity as the “dominant” religion of
indigenous Fijians,6 in contrast to immigrant Hindu and Buddhist
populations. Moreover, in Tonga, Methodism is “intrinsic” to the kingdom’s
Aboriginal congregations are often viewed as a mission field. Most indigenous
pastors I have spoken with emphasize the need for continuing support to reach
communities suffering Australia’s “Indigenous Disadvantage” of social
exclusion—a term used to reflect lowered life expectancy, education, and
employment, and increased incarceration, alcohol/drug abuse, and suicide.
However, conversation on inequalities within the church is often shortcircuited
by misperceptions regarding indigenous religiosity. Historically, Western
Eurocentric assimilation policies suppressed Australian language, music, and
cultural artifacts. Because Aboriginal theology is under construction, there is
no Christian interfaith appraisal of original indigenous religiosity.7
Highlighting the wisdom found in indigenous religion(s) would be greatly
fruitful (1 Cor 2:14).
The thesis of my
article is that many Australian Pentecostals conflate indigenous religion(s)
with indigenous culture. Therefore, there is need to reexamine Christian
engagement with Australian religion(s). However, some Pentecostal Aboriginal
pastors model interfaith dialogue ritually in embodied poetics, utilizing
discernment to note the Spirit’s universal work in the land while preserving
the distinct message of the saving power of Jesus Christ.
Interfaith Dialogue as Poetics
colonization, Australia had over five hundred nations, each with a spirituality
centered in customary maintenance of the land.8 Often called “the
Dreaming,” this is described as the ancestors’ creative action that enchanted
the earth along Dreaming tracks (i.e., this land is still sacred today).9
Stanner emphasizes that Dreaming is not illusory but in fact “a poetic key to
reality.”10 Fiona Magowan sets out a poetics of Christian worship in
the Northern Territory.11 Interestingly, indigenous pastors in
Anglican, Baptist, Uniting, and even Catholic churches display a strikingly Pentecostalized
approach to liturgy. I estimate as many as 60 percent of indigenous Australian
Christians may be Pentecostal or charismatic, defined by a theological emphasis
upon lay participation, glossolalia (speaking in tongues), and rites of healing.12
However, other markers such as a hermeneutic of experience and emphasis on
testimony are also displayed. These characteristics were explained to me as
stemming from the influence of Dreaming spiritualities.
The New Testament
worship practice that emerged after Pentecost interlinked leadership roles of
preaching the Word and interfaith dialogue with concrete social manifestations,
separated from Acts 6 onwards.13 Later, the church’s stewardship of
the world was epitomized in Christendom, the notion of “Christian nations” preaching
the gospel abroad, beginning in Europe and eventually reaching “The Great
Southland.”14 Australians now assess a tangled aftermath of
religious and commercial endeavor fueled by the “doctrine of discovery” that
carved Oceania into its current form.15 Many Aboriginal pastors
express both thankfulness and distress at what came “across the seas.”16
In the book of James we see such human tensions: “from the same mouth come
blessings and cursing—how can this be?” (3:10). In Australia, witness to Jesus
the Word was entwined with cultural superiority, exploitation of the land, and
an “otherizing” exclusion of original inhabitants.
David Bosch promotes a three-strand association between Christian witness and
worship in the context of mission; not just God’s truth (theoria)
or social justice
(praxis) but also poesis in the Greek sense of making or forming
the cultural imagination. He states:
not only need truth (theory) and justice (praxis); they also need beauty, the
rich resources of symbol, piety, worship, love, awe, and mystery. Only too
often, in the tug-of-war between the priority of truth and the priority of
justice, this dimension gets lost."17
These are wise
words. If we look a little closer, poesis not only interconnects truth speaking
and justice practices, it is highly useful in interfaith engagement. It was
borrowed Greek poetry that Paul used in public dialogue at Mars Hill (Acts 17).
Similarly, an ignited cultural imagination propelled boats from England over rough
seas towards the distant islands. For some, it was the simple allure of a
mysterious Southern continent said to balance the world. For others, it was the
thought of destitute natives living in bark houses, or knowledge these peoples
did not share the comfort of eternal salvation. It is now the responsibility of
the Australian church to discern the blessings and curses within our inherited
Aesthetics of Inclusion
In the Pacific
islands, influential poetic images and thoughts were transmitted through song.
In Australia, this practice continues, and perhaps one could posit that
Hillsong Music, Planetshakers, and other Australian Christian music publishing
houses could be said to borrow from indigenous song-sharing rituals. Music
plays a significant part in mission and cultural imagination, but is largely westernized
in both sound and in language. Creative indigenizing of American and British
hymns was documented in Polynesia as early as 1828.18 Missiologist
Alan Tippett notes new religious movements that travelled in song later in the
1970s, also citing resistance to cultural emblems,
Christian Soldiers' swept around the [Solomon Islands] Lagoon like a song 'hit'.
The elders and old women felt that some of the Christian mana [power] was coming from these hymns,
which were regarded as magical; and therefore they banned their use."19
For many, song
popularity is evidence of the Spirit’s anointing. I make no claim against songs
carrying biblical (or salvific) revelation. However, in many cases, our
understanding of anointing is based within cultural values, as the example from
Tippett shows above. Should Sabine Baring-Gould (the author of “Onward Christian
Soldiers”) face accusations that this song held Christian magic, many would
consider this laughable. Yet, many indigenous Australians face such accusations
when they attempt to integrate language or the sounds of “the bush” into
worship. This raises the question of whether song-sharing practices should be
considered interfaith dialogue.
My goal is not to
make a mockery of Pentecostal spiritual practices. In fact, it is the
opposite—we need to foster values and virtues that promote discerning of a
divine absence from the merely anthropological, as Amos Yong suggests in Discerning the Spirit(s): A
Pentecostal-Charismatic Contribution to Christian Theology of Religions.20 Experience is
important for human spirituality. Other than through bodily senses (such as
sight to read), I cannot encounter the Word. The potential for Australian
Pentecostals to extend poesis beyond a simple one-way missional communication
into respectful interfaith dialogue is vast.
Recently, I met
two liturgists involved in the Canberra WCC event, Swedish Per Harling and
Brazilian Simei Monterio. I sat transfixed as Per described the committee’s
intentional involvement of indigenous Christians. This service fell in
Pentecost season, with the text of Acts 2. These Christians chose to integrate
smoke as an echo of traditional welcome ceremonies in honor of the land and people.
Participants walked through fragrant smoldering eucalyptus branches as a
purifying symbol. These liturgists saw smoke as analogous to the Holy Spirit in
Christian worship tradition. Both spoke of surprise at rejection of this
element by Pentecostal Christians. They also relayed stories I had never heard.
Per mentioned that as they read of the Holy Spirit’s descent upon the Upper
Room, a magpie entered the tent and flew over worshippers heads, reminiscent of
gospel passages in which Jesus received the Holy Spirit like a dove (Matt 3:16,
Mark 1:10, Luke 3:22, John 1:32). He also mentioned that an African American
participant was astounded at the significance of the bird’s black and white markings—for
him, a symbol of racial unity poured out at Pentecost. Per denied orchestrating
this moment. But perhaps it was a prophetic symbolic act organized by God who
has been present in the land before Christ’s name was spoken. And perhaps the
art of interfaith poesis is not an effort to promote Christian images, but the
ability to see the Spirit when dialoguing with the cultural symbols of the
Bureau of Statistics (ABS) footnotes indicate indigenous responses were as high
as 74%, with statistics adjusted due to concerns that these Australians
misinterpreted the survey (ABS, Year
Book Australia: Religious Affiliation—1301.0,
classification “very remote” is one of six indicators. It measures remoteness
in terms of accessibility along road networks to urban service centers for
populations above 5,000. The term “very remote” covers regions including Australia’s
deserts, the Kimberlies, tropical Arnhem Land, Cape York, and the Torres
Straits. While traditional ways of life are observed by some communities, the statistics
show very low self-reporting of traditional spirituality, even in these areas.
of Statistics, Year Book
Australia: Religious Affiliation—1301.0
4This is noted by
both Mark Hutchinson and John Wolffe (A
Short History of Global Evangelicalism [Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 2012], 236) in the historical literature and by
Carolyn Schwarz and Franciose Dussart (“Christianity in Aboriginal Australia
Australian Journal of Anthropology 21
: 2) in the anthropological literature.
first volume (Outback
Ghettos: Aborigines, Institutionalisation, and Survival [Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993])
outlines three Australian mission stations in the state of South Australia,
charting three types of engagement with indigenous religious practice, and the
contribution of indigenous Christians. Her second edited volume (Indigenous Peoples and Religious Change [Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2005]) outlines a broader picture
of the Oceanian continent and cites the contribution of Maretu from the Solomon
Islands and an Arrernte man from Central Australia, Moses Tjalkabota, “a
teacher, preacher and itinerant evangelist” (101).
Versluys, in her dissertation, “Creative Interaction between Aboriginal Spirituality
and Biblical Spirituality” (Pastoral Studies, Catholic Theological Union, Chicago,
2002), notes Dreaming corroborees in the Central Desert region that incorporated
the unknown animal of a lamb before European settlement. Her fieldwork
describes indigenous practices consistent with Catholic charismatics in Australia’s
cities. Noel Loos (White Christ Black Cross: The
Emergence of a Black Church [Canberra:
Aboriginal Studies Press, 2007]) notes the charismatic features of Anglican
Bishop Malcolm’s spirituality. This adds to my fieldwork observing indigenous
churches in Perth, Cairns, Sydney, and Tweed Heads.
well-known attempt at Aboriginal theology is by the Rainbow Spirit Elders, Rainbow Spirit Theology: Towards an Australian
Aboriginal Theology (Blackburn:
Harper Collins, 1997). However, various other oral contributions are emerging.
8M. Rolls, M.
Johnson, and H. Reynolds, Historical
Dictionary of Australian Aborigines (Lanham:
Scarecrow Press, 2010), 146; Gary D. Bouma, “Globalisation and Localisation:
Pentecostals and Anglicans in Australia and the United States,” Sydney Studies in Religion 2 (2008): 83–92.
as Social Practice: Anglo-Western and Australian Aboriginal Oral Traditions, vol. 13: Language,
Power and Social Process (Berlin: De
Gruyter Mouton, 2004), 67.
10W. E. H. Stanner,
Religion, Totemism and
Symbolism, in A Reader in the Anthropology of Religion, ed. Michael Lambek (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2002), 82.
“Dancing with a Difference: Reconfiguring the Poetic Politics of Aboriginal
Ritual as National Spectacle,” Australian
Journal of Anthropology 11 (2000): 308;
Fiona Magowan and Karl Neuenfeldt, Landscapes
of Indigenous Performance: Music, Song and Dance of the Torres Strait and
Arnhem Land (Canberra:
Aboriginal Studies Press, 2005); Fiona Magowan, “Globalisation and Indigenous
Christianity: Translocal Sentiments in Australian Aboriginal Christian Songs,” Identities 14
“Globalisation and Localisation,” 82.
are outlined at length in Alan Kreider and Elanor Kreider, Worship and Mission after Christendom (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2011).
14For a history of
this term and its use on Australia Day, see R. Hardiman, “Celebrating Australia
Day: Unwrapping ‘The Great Southland of the Holy Spirit,’” Pastoral Liturgy 39
15Some of the best outlines of the “doctrine of discovery” and its impact
upon the Americas are found within the edited volume by A. Yong and B. B.
Zikmund, Remembering Jamestown: Hard
Questions about Christian Mission (Eugene,
OR: Pickwick Publications, 2010).
16This phrase, “for
those who’ve come across the seas,” is a line in the Australian national anthem
that evokes Australian migration patterns but excludes the first Australians,
“Advance Australia Fair.” P. D. McCormick, Advance
Australia Fair: Patriotic Song, Written
and composed by “Amicus” (Sydney: Reading & Co., 1879).
Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm
Shifts in Theology of Mission, American
Society of Missiology Series 16 (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1991), 431.
“Prelude to a Comparative Investigation of Protestant Hymnody in Polynesia,” Yearbook for Traditional Music 25 (1993), 91.
19Alan R. Tippett, Solomon Islands Christianity: A Study in Growth and
Obstruction, World Studies of
Churches in Mission (London: Lutterworth, 1967), 58.
20A. Yong, Discerning the Spirit(s): A Pentecostal-Charismatic
Contribution to Christian Theology of Religions, Journal of Pentecostal Theology, Supplement Series 20
(Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), 24.
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Tanya Riches is an Australian worship leader, songwriter, and speaker, currently studying
at Fuller Theological Seminary.