Wednesday, February 08, 2017
paper acceptance Resistance and Innovation: Empire and Native Christianity in the Pacific
I was delighted to hear today that a paper proposal I submitted for the Resistance and Innovation: Empire and Native Christianity in the Pacific conference at the University of Auckland on March 24, 2017 has been accepted. The conference will bring together scholars of Christianity in a variety of disciplines to examine the cultural dynamics of the interaction between native peoples and transplanted Christian churches in the Pacific region. It will pay particular attention to the dynamic tension between centralized and localized religious culture.
My paper will be a development of research I presented at the International Association of Mission Studies conference in Korea in August 2016. I’ve continued to write and research for publication in the months since and am glad of the opportunity to also present my research in a Pacific and University environment. Here is the abstract I submitted:
“Hapkas” Christology as resistance and innovation in Drusilla Modjeska’s The Mountain
The interaction between Christianity and indigenous cultures can provide rich insights into cross-cultural exchange in liminal spaces. Equally the complexity of such insights can be masked by totalising narratives, including hagiography and Euro-centric imperialism.
One way to approach native Christianity in Papua New Guinea (PNG) is through Drusilla Modjeska’s The Mountain. It has been acclaimed as PNG’s best historical novel (Moore, 2012). The post-colonial methodologies of Ashcroft (in Colonial Contexts and Postcolonial Theologies: Storyweaving in the Asia-Pacific, 2014) will be used to read The Mountain for indigenous agency in resistance and innovation. Such a reading requires locating Modjeska as an academic and novelist who refuses to accept totalising binaries, in both her writing and her life.
I will argue that the portrayal of native Christianity in The Mountain assumes indigenous approval and indigenization. Themes of ancestor gift and “hapkas” will be applied to Jesus as “good man true, he die for PNG” (Modjeska 2012: 291). The creative reworking by which native (Omie) people locate Jesus as ancestor gift of Canaanite descent will be examined. This is consistent with recent scholarship in which indigenous cultures are Old Testaments (Lift Every Voice: Constructing Christian Theologies from the Underside, 1998; Brett 2003) and the book of Genesis a demonstration of indigenous faiths being woven respectfully into the story of Israel (The Old Testament of the Old Testament: Patriarchal Narratives and Mosaic Yahwism, 1992).
This subverts the “big man” as a key trope in the ethnography of Melanesia (Big Men and Great Men: Personifications of Power in Melanesia, 2009). It suggests that post-colonial theology pay attention to cultural hybridity and indigenous innovation. Or in the words of The Mountain: a “hapkas” Jesus who is “good man true” for PNG.
Dr Steve Taylor
Flinders University: Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership
Tuesday, August 02, 2016
Let us sing (in harmonies) a new song in this strange land
Last week, I was asked to deliver a keynote address at the Pacific Island Synod, a gathering of Samoan, Niuean, Tokelau/Tuvalu and Cook Island communities from around Aotearoa New Zealand. I was asked to address the question: How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? As soon as I received the invitation, I asked a KCML colleague, Malcolm Gordon, if he might have a song to sing. A few days before, I gave him the script for my talk and he responded with a yes.
The Pacific Island Synod ended with a feast on the Saturday evening. This included a number of speeches, in which gifts were offered. With Malcolm present, I stood and announced that we as KCML had a gift, that of a song, written specifically – new – for this occasion. I noted the theme – How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? – as a question not only for Pacific Island communities, but also for Malcolm and I as Palangi. Together, as diverse nations, we share a common quest, a shared mission, that of seeking God’s help in singing a new song.
Malcolm passed copies of the music around. He noted he had a melody, but that the song needed harmonies. There was an instant murmur among those gathered, with so many fine voices and such a rich tradition of song among Pacific peoples. As Malcolm began a cappella, those gathered began to improvise harmonies. Together in our diversity we produced a new song.
As the Synod Clerk wrote to me later “It was a great moment when the place just broke into song. Thanks Steve and Malcolm for such a great finish to the day. We definitely sung a new song in this strange world.”
Wednesday, July 27, 2016
Pacific Island Synod bound
I’m delighted to be heading for Auckland to be part of the Pacific Island Synod over the weekend. I will be doing a keynote presentation on Friday, on the topic – singing the Lord’s song in a strange land. I’ve enjoyed the preparation.
This involves working on the bringing of greetings in five different languages and a final benediction in Samoan language. It has involved researching climate change in Pacific Islands and finding resources from Christian faith that might sustain communities entering this contemporary experience of exile.
I will also be weaving in wisdom from the Uniting Church Revised Preamble, including paragraphs that I observed having impact on Fijian Uniting Church leaders like Eseta Meneilly:
1. When the churches that formed the Uniting Church arrived in Australia as part of the process of colonisation they entered a land that had been created and sustained by the Triune God they knew in Jesus Christ.
3. The First Peoples had already encountered the Creator God before the arrival of the colonisers; the Spirit was already in the land revealing God to the people through law, custom and ceremony. The same love and grace that was finally and fully revealed in Jesus Christ sustained the First Peoples and gave them particular insights into God’s ways.
10. After much struggle and debate, in 1994 the Assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia discovered God’s call, accepted this invitation and entered into an ever deepening covenantal relationship with the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress. This was so that all may see a destiny together, praying and working together for a fuller expression of our reconciliation in Jesus Christ.
It has also involved seeking to understand more about a Samoan proverb: Fetu’utu’una’i’ muniao. In conversation with a number of Samoan leaders, I wonder if this is could be understood as an Oceania hermeneutic. I can see elements in fetu’utu’una’i’ muniao of the Wesleyan quadrilateral – Scripture, experience, reason, tradition – all held beautifully in an action-reflection, communal approach to voyaging. More later, after I see how fetu’utu’una’i’ muniao lands in the next few days.
Tuesday, July 05, 2016
Our Little Sister: film review
Monthly I write a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 100 plus films later, here is the review for July 2016.
Our Little Sister
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor
“Our Little Sister” is a window into rural Japanese culture. It is a politely, heart-warming, albeit slightly surreal alternative, to Japan as industrialised, high-tech and fast-paced.
Three adult sisters share life in the family home. Together they have found a way to live despite being abandoned by their parents: a father who left for another woman and a mother who disappears for fifteen years, crippled by grief.
At their father’s funeral, the three sisters meet their thirteen-year old younger sister for the first time. In the face of shared grief, she joins them in the family home. It sets in motion the facing of an unfolding set of bitter-sweet, until then unexplored, memories.
“Our Little Sister” began life as manga. Manga is comic and cartoon, a Japanese art form read by all ages. It is big business, an industry worth over $5.5 billion dollars. Manga includes more than action and anime. It has spilled into commerce and comedy, history and horror, murder and mystery, sci-fi and fantasy. There is even a Manga Bible, published in 2006 by Next, a non-profit organization. It aims to appeal to those who no longer attend church or find traditional Bible translations less than accessible.
“Our Little Sister” is Josei manga, a genre aimed at women in their late teens and early adulthood. It began life as a monthly serial: “Umimachi Dairy.” Created by Akimi Yoshida, “Umimachi” means Seaside Town in Japanese. It suggests a rural idyll common among industrialised urban dwellers.
The attempt by director Hirokazu Koreeda to turn the episodic nature of monthly serial into a plot arcing over 120 minutes is less than successful. Three patterns of life are introduced. Daily, there is the preparation and consumption of food. Food is a setting for memory making and community building. This involves repeated scenes both at home as the younger sister is slowly woven into domestic life and at the local diner. What emerges is an approach to food not as recipe books and celebrity chefs but as knowledge shared in inter-generational making.
A second pattern is seasonal. The movie is structured around Japanese rural idyll. These include the cherry blossoms of spring, the plum harvest of summer and the capture of white bait in season. These weave further layers in the unfolding of memories.
A third pattern is generational. In “Our Little Sister”, these involve funerals and memorials rather than births and weddings.
Each of these three patterns amplify the dysfunctional distortion at the movies’ heart. Food, seasons and funerals create memories, each of which is distorted by the strangeness of four sisters live in a mono-generational family unit.
Mono-generational makes sense when your manga market involves women in their late teens and early adulthood. But as way of life it ends up becoming a somewhat surreal “seaside” diary.
“Our Little Sister” is well worth the watch. Despite the attention required when reading subtitles, the humour is rich, the characters rewarding and the crossing of cultures endearing, even if slightly surreal.
Rev Dr Steve Taylor is Principal of Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership, Dunedin. He is the author of Built for change (Mediacom: 2016) and The Out of Bounds Church? (Zondervan: 2005) and writes widely in areas of theology and popular culture, including regularly at www.emergentkiwi.org.nz.
Saturday, June 04, 2016
Mission possible: becoming intercultural by becoming children
I spoke this week at Mission Possible, an event organised by Asian Ministry of the PCANZ. Held at Henderson Korean Presbyterian Church, it was a privilege to be part of an event at which their were more non-Western speakers than Western. In response to the theme of Mission Possible, I offered 2 stories, one picture, one proverb and one application to KCML (Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership).
First, let me begin with a story of mission impossible. In 1987, I went to Hong Kong. For 1 month I served with YWAM (Youth with a mission), then for another month I worked with drug addicts. I lived on the outskirts of Hong Kong, with ten Cantonese men recovering drug addicts and an American. We worshipped, worked and studied together.
One day the American left for a day off. I was left, the only English speaker, with a group of 10 Cantonese speaking men. About midday, I heard yelling and stepping outside, realised the yelling – all in Cantonese – was directed at me. I spoke very little Cantonese. The person yelling at me spoke no English. I had no idea what he’s saying. I just stood there. Seeking any clues as to what was going on. Wondering when it would stop.
It was a moment when I became aware of the importance of bridge builders. Those who speak two languages and can stand between two cultures, who can help with communication and understanding, who provide different ways to look.
Tonight I honour our organiser, Kyoung, who is such a bridge builder among us. What a gift you are. Mission is impossible without bridge builders.
Second, a story of mission possible. I have brought with me a picnic basket (well I did in the airplane in my suitcase, but forgot it in coming here! so please use your imagination). I used this (imaginary picnic basket) at the KCML graduation last year, at which David Kim (my interpreter tonight) graduated. Another bridge builder. The Bible text was Matthew 15, Jesus feeding the 4000. To help me enter the Bible story, I imagined a picnic. I even brought my own picnic basket.
We are the PCANZ, so I also asked Nathan Pedro, Moderator of the Pacific Island Synod, to bring a picnic basket. He brought a large mat, a huge fish and some taro. I asked Kyoung to bring a picnic basket. He brought a beautifully wrapped small box. So different than my picnic basket or that of the Pacific Island Synod. This is my second story. Mission possible begins when we celebrate our differences and embrace our diversity.
Third, I offer a picture, an art image. It is by Faith Ringgold, an Afro-American artist, of a church picnic. Each family has brought their own food. The picture asks a question. Once you sit on the mat, with your distinct and diverse picnic basket, how do you move? How do you get up off your mat and engage the mat of another?
In the picture, the answer is children. It is children who run to the Korean mat and taste the kimchi. Then run to the Pacific mat and enjoy the raw fish in coconut cream. So when we think about mission possible we need to ask: Who are our children? Who will run between the mats of the different cultures in the PCANZ. We need to value them. We need to encourage them. Let them go. Let them explore. Let them bring back richness.
Fourth, I share a Maori proverb – Nāu te rourou, nāku te rourou ka ora te manuwhiri. with your food basket and my food basket, the guest will have enough. We live in super diversity. In this city, mission is only possible when the church has bridge builders; celebrates diversity and has children.
Fifthly, this is our challenge as KCML. We as a core staff are a monoculture. We are all pakeha. All male. It is not enough for us to sit on our mat. It is not enough to rely on bridge builders, like Kyoung, or Don Ikitoelagi from the Pacific Island Synod.
We as KCML staff need to become children. We need to step out and move to the mats of other cultures and approaches to life. And so to challenge and grow ourselves, we are developing a KCML intercultural code of practice. These are the behaviours we need, in order to be children. There are 15 behaviours. Like
- We will find theologians in the heart language of our students.
- We will be open to different modes of assessment that suit cultures student.
- We will take study leave in non-Western cultures.
We will give this KCML Intercultural Code of Practice to our students and place it on our website. We do this to hold us to account.
In the Gospel, Jesus calls us to be children. This is how disciples enter God’s Kingdom. This Code of Practice is what Mission Possible means for us. It calls us off our picnic mats to engage the rich diversity of other cultures.
Thursday, January 21, 2016
culture and gospel insight
“Maungarongo (pointing to the name). The name of your marae means peace or reconciliation. That word was always here, in our (Maori) language. But the Bible drew it out, made the word visible and grow among us.” – (A comment during one of the speeches, made by a spokesperson for the Maori King, during the Powhiri for the re-opening of Maungarongo Marae, in Ohope.)
A fascinating way to understand culture and gospel. The host culture is respected (That word was always here). The arrival of Christianity is noted (the Bible drew it out). You can’t have gospel without culture. Such is the result of the Word made flesh.
Yet culture with Gospel enriches, causes, in this case, peace and reconciliation to flow. What does it mean for Christians to approach culture looking for what is already there?
Tuesday, January 19, 2016
It was an wonderful privilege over the weekend gone to represent KCML at the re-opening of the Maungarongo Marae, in Ohope. The marae is the courtyard of Te Aka Puaho (Glowing vine), the Presbyterian Maori Synod of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand. (For the history of the marae, go here).
The re-opening began with an Awakening the Dawn ceremony. Beginning at 4 am, it involved prayer in language, offered by a wide variety of religious groups.
On the way into the marae, you pass some maihi, the carved archway, which for many years was a gift from Te Wanangi a Rangi to KCML. They lived in Dunedin and were a visual reminder to staff and students on a daily basis that there was a Covenant between Te Wanangi a Rangi and KCML. In 2007 these old friends returned here to Ohope.
Seeing them at Ohope is a reminder of the history of bi-culutural training partnership between Te Wanangi a Rangi and KCML which has enriched over so many years.
There is a Maori Proverb
He tangata ke koutou, He tangata ke matou
I roto i teni whare, tatou, tatou e
You are one people, and We are one people
Yet, within this house, we are one together.
With the marae closed in recent months, we at KCML have been weakened by the distance. Now, with re-opening of the marae, there is a chance for the relationship to be strengthened. In opening the marae, we at KCML brought a koha, a gift.
It is a picture of Knox, painted by the partner of a staff person. We give it to this marae, in the hope that it might live in this house, this marae. In the hole it has left at KCML, we will place a picture of this marae.
We offer this as a prayer that – I roto i teni whare, tatou, tatou e
Wednesday, February 25, 2015
Reading Charles Taylor missionally: learning party
What does it mean to speak of church, mission and faith in a secular age?
I am offering a reading group to engage theologically and missionally with Charles Taylor, one of the most insightful cultural thinkers of our time. We will focus on four key books
- James McEvoy, Leaving Christendom for Good: Church-World Dialogue in a Secular Age, 2014.
- James Smith, How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor, 2014.
- Charles Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity, 1992.
- Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, 2007.
The aim will be to absorb, to reflect and to consider the implications for mission and ministry.
Wednesdays, 5.15 – 6.45pm, fortnightly from Wednesday 4 March at Uniting College. Seven sessions, finishing June 10. For information, please comment or email steve dot taylor at flinders dot edu do au.
Sunday, December 21, 2014
Interstellar: a Christmas reading
Monthly I publish a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 85 plus films later, here is the review for Dececmber 2014, of Interstellar. In particular I play with Dr Mann and Christ as the new Adam.
A film review by Steve Taylor
Interstellar begins on earth, in order to send us to space. Human love becomes a fifth dimension, able to guide the human heart through the final frontier. So suggests Interstellar, which offers a visually stunning, but emotionally overbalanced meditation on the perils of climate change.
The film begins in rural America. Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), once an astronaut, is now grounded. He farms an ever-decreasing crop of corn, bitten by blight, shredded by dust. Facing starvation, the only hope for earth becomes the finding of another planet. Cooper is sent spaceward, the one pilot able to guide earth’s last hope through a wormhole, in the search for a new earth.
Interstellar is great entertainment. Directed by Christopher Nolan, the sights and sounds are simply stunning. The multiple dimensions of space, digitally manipulated, become objects of stark and starlit beauty.
The cast is similarly star, including Matthew McConaughey as Cooper, Jessica Chastain as Murph (Cooper’s adult daughter), Anne Hathaway as fellow astronaut Brand and Michael Caine as her scientist father.
In order to enable an emotional intensity through the voids that are outer space, Christopher Nolan uses the opening scenes to establishes a depth of relationship between father (Cooper) and his adolescent daughter Murph (McKenzie Foy). While this provides emotional intensity, it reduces the other characters to cardboard cutouts. This includes the role played by Cooper’s son, Tom (Timothy Chalamet). It also makes cold the movies’ other father and daughter relationship, between Hathaway and Michael Caine.
The film seeks an intellectual sophistication. Symbolic meanings abound. The space ship Cooper will pilot is named Endurance. He will seek a Dr Mann (Matt Damon), who has gone before, and if found, might offer hope of a better place. The dialogue references Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and name drops Lazarus. The dust storms that blow through Cooper’s rural cornfields echo John Steinbeek’s Oaklhoma dustbowl.
Theologically, the move in Interstellar from earth to heaven invites some rich reflection on the opposite move in Christianity from heaven to earth.
A central character in Interstellar is the mysterious Dr Mann, sent from earth to heaven, in the hope of saving humanity. It provides a contrast to the development in the New Testament of Jesus as the new Adam, sent from heaven to earth, a new human through whom humanity will be saved.
As Interstellar unfolds, Mann’s character flaws put in stark relief the sacrificial life and love of Christ. Dr Mann will end his life in selfish pursuit of his own ends. In contrast, Christ ends his life praying not my will but yours be done.
Such is the Interstellar Christ of Christmas, revealing the love of God in every dimension, whether first or fifth, of human reality.
Rev Dr Steve Taylor is Principal at the Uniting College for Leadership and Theology, Adelaide. He writes widely in areas of theology and popular culture, including regularly at www.emergentkiwi.org.nz.
Friday, December 19, 2014
U2 above across beyond: great cover and out
Fabulous cover for just released U2 Above, Across, and Beyond: Interdisciplinary Assessments
It emerges from the 2013 U2 Conference, held in collaboration with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. One of the chapters is mine, “Transmitting Memories: U2’s Rituals for Creating Communal History.” It is one of eight, that explore from the disciplines of organizational communication, music theory, literary studies, religion, and cultural studies ways U2’s dynamic of change has been a constant theme throughout its career.
Here’s the book blurb:
U2’s success and significance are due, in large part, to finding inventive, creative solutions for overcoming obstacles and moving past conventional boundaries. As it has embraced change and transformation over and over again, its fans and critics have come to value and expect this element of U2.
Thanks to the editing and publishing skills of Scott Calhoun, who directs the U2 Conference, is curator for the U2: Made in Dublin exhibit, and is professor of writing and literature at Cedarville University.
If you order directly from the publisher with this discount code — LEX30AUTH15 — you’ll save 30% off the list price. This code is free for the sharing.
Here’s the table of contents:
Introduction: U2 TRANS- Scott Calhoun
1. Collaborative Transactions: Making Sense (Again) for U2’s Achtung Baby, Christopher Wales
2. Transvaluing Adam Clayton: Why the Bass Matters in U2’s Music, Brian F. Wright
3. Translating Genres: U2’s Embrace of Electronic Dance Music in the 1990s, Ed Montano
4. A Transcendent Desire: In Defense of U2’s Irishness, Arlan Elizabeth Hess
5. A Transmedia Storyworld: The Edge Is One, But Not The Same, Fred Johnson
6. Transgressive Theology: The Sacred and the Profane at U2’s PopMart, Theodore Louis Trost
7. Transmitting Memories: U2’s Rituals for Creating Communal History, Steve Taylor
8. The Transformative Fan: The Bricolage of U2 Live, Matthew J. Hamilton
Monday, May 26, 2014
Jesus and the religions
I’m teaching Theology of Jesus in Semester 2, both weekly in Adelaide and by intensive at New Life Uniting Church, on the Gold Coast, in November. Plus I am teaching on Mission as an intensive in Sydney in July.
So today I was doing some preparation, which included reading Bob Robinson, Jesus and the Religions: Retrieving a Neglected Example for a Multi-cultural World. It is a brilliant conceived book. It asks how Christians should approach other faiths by exploring how Jesus engaged other faiths.
It begins with three Gospel stories – Jesus and the Roman Centurion, Jesus and the Syrophonecian woman, Jesus and the Samaritan Woman. Doing theology, bringing together themes from the three encounters it argues that their are implications for how contemporary people engage plurality.
- Be open to surprise, in the same way Jesus was surprised by the faith of the Roman Centurion, the Syrophonecian and the Samaritan woman.
- Affirm what surprises you, again in the same way Jesus affirmed the faith of the Roman Centurion, the Syrophonecian and the Samaritan woman.
- In particular, look for faith and humility. This includes the role not only of faith, but of the content of that faith. In all three examples, their “faith appears to include more than heart-felt hope or desperate concern.” (Jesus and the Religions: Retrieving a Neglected Example for a Multi-cultural World, 116). And so by implication, “Might examples of faith, humility, and insight, wherever they are found in the contemporary world, be affirmed by disciples today – even when they contrast less than favorable with their own.” (Jesus and the Religions: Retrieving a Neglected Example for a Multi-cultural World, 117-8).
- The exclusion of vengeance. For example, Jesus response to the Roman Centurion is a moment of love of enemy. Moving to other Gospel stories, one might note the rain falls on the just and the unjust, or the banquet parables which include, rather than exclude.
What is even more intriguing is an initial chapter in which Christ becomes an exegete. The focus is Luke 4:16-30, and how Jesus engages Scripture. Robinson concludes that there are fresh readings, new performances of Scripture as Biblical texts are encountered in the power of the Spirit. This opens up an exemplary Christology, in which the church reads for direction in how to live its life of witness in the world.
All of which makes for a rich teaching resource.
Sunday, December 01, 2013
a haunted culture
The presence of Christianity continues to haunt our culture. Like above, in this 2013 poster advertising an Adelaide film festival. Or the lingering presence of “ritual” in very small type (Rewarding the ritual) in this October 2013 advertisement, fused with some fascinating reflection on male identity. Playful, irreverent, but still present.
Or this piece of theology, in a local coffee shop in June 2013, in which God is entwined with a creation narrative and mission. Once again, playful, irreverent, but still present.
Mieke Bal, the Dutch cultural theorist suggests three ways to understand these ongoing traces within western society.
- Christianity is present, making it impossible to think about cultural analysis without acknowledging the theological underpinning of the western world (and so the visual rifting of red-robed religious beings).
- Christianity is a cultural structure, informing the cultural imaginary whether people believe or not (and so words like ritual and worship remain)
- Christianity is just one of the structures, it is not the only cultural structure, nor the only religious structure that underpins who we are or have come to be (and so the work that people do with “God” will vary).
I’m reading and thinking about this in a more focused way, given I’m part of teaching a topic, Bible and culture, on the Flinders University campus this summer. The course is inviting us to explain the ongoing appropriation of Christian imagery in contemporary culture, the religious presence on film posters, the Bible references in movies as bizarre as Pulp Fiction, the fascination with church in the David Bowie Next day video.
A course for which we will need some accessories – prizes for the person who finds the most pop cultural references to Psalm 137 or O come, O come Emmanuel – prizes like Pulp Fiction Ezekiel reference Tshirts, buddy Jesus fridge magnets and God is a DJ henna tattoos.
Thursday, November 14, 2013
Bible and pop culture summer school intensive
Tuesday, November 12, 2013
the pain and peril of living in exile: a theological film review of White Lies
Each month I publish a film review, for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 85 plus films later, here is the review for November, of New Zealand film, White Lies.
“White Lies” has the same producer (John Barnett) and original writer (Witi Ihimaera) as the now celebrated New Zealand film “Whale Rider.” Yet “White Lies” offers a far darker exploration of New Zealand’s bi-cultural identity.
The era is early twentieth century and Maori medicine woman, Paraiti (Whirikamako Black) gathers native herbs and provides medical care for her people, scattered throughout Te Urewera wilderness.
On a rare trip to the city, she is furtively asked by Maori housekeeper, Maraea (Rebecca House), to help her wealthy mistress, Rebecca Vickers (Antonia Prebble), keep a secret. Together, these three women generate the emotional heart of the movie, an interwoven pairing of life with death and death with life.
Initially, Paraiti refuses to help, chilled by the alien whiteness of the world in which Maraea and Rebecca live. Her mind is changed by subsequent events, a child birth gone wrong, during which Pakeha display a callous disdain for Maori patterns and practices. All of which is history, for in 1907 the New Zealand Government passed the Tohunga Suppression Act, which limited the services Maori could provide to their communities. For Paraiti, her actions will be an act of resistance, a way of restoring some justice.
This is an acting debut for well-known Maori singer, Whirikamako Black and she is superbly paired with Antonia Prebble, best known for her portrayal of Loretta West in TV drama, “Outrageous Fortune.”
Plaudits are also due to other New Zealand artists. The house in which Rebecca lives is a triumph for film designer, Tracey Collins, while the forests in which Paraiti gathers herbs and the room in which Rebecca gives birth, allow the well-honed atmospheric skills of Alun Bollinger to unfold in all their gloomy cinematographic glory.
Written and directed by Mexican born Dana Rotberg, “White Lies” significantly reworks Ihimaera’s novella, “Medicine Woman.” Maori carvers return to their work, reasoned Ihimaera, so why not writers? Despite the re-carving of words, the early scenes of the movie lack pace, failing to provide momentum the emotional centre deserves.
What unfolds in “White Lies” are three contrasting approaches to dominant Pakeha culture, each embodied in the three women: marginality in Paraiti, accommodation in Maraea, ultimate assimilation in Rebecca.
What is thought provoking is to then lay “White Lies” alongside the First Testament. Israel’s experience of exile offers another perspective on how minority communities activate resistance. We see marginality in the return of Nehemiah to a Jerusalem destroyed. We see accommodation in the book of Esther, her willingness to parlay her sexuality in exchange for influence. We see assimilation in Jeremiah’s injunction to build houses, plant gardens and take wives.
“White Lies” a century on offers little hope. Rebecca’s final decisions are chillingly bleak, while the forest gathering ways of Pariati are, in twentyfirst century New Zealand, long gone.
All that remains, as the movie tagline declares, is the reality that redemption comes at a price. Christians will ponder the crucial birthing scene, in which Rebecca hangs in a crucifix position, arms spread wide, supported by a watching woman, in the painful journey through which new life will eventually be won.
Rev Dr Steve Taylor is Principal at the Uniting College for Leadership and Theology, Adelaide. He writes widely in areas of theology and popular culture, including regularly at www.emergentkiwi.org.nz.