Tuesday, July 06, 2010

my paper went well – Bible, plough and damper: responding to a de/colonising God

I delivered my paper – titled Bible, plough and damper: responding to a de/colonising God – today. It seemed to gain lots of energy and positive feedback today: the radio man recording for ABC shook my hand in genuine appreciation, while my chief interlocur called it “great”.

What I wanted to do was explore how indigenous communities read the Biblical text, particularly when it is perceived that the dominant culture has brought the Bible as part of the colonisation process. I would suggest such work is of importance given the concern with how contemporary Christianity will survive in the face of what is often perceived as colonising – the threats of consumerism and globalisation.

I looked at two historic examples. One was the Parihaka story and Te Whiti O Rongomai’s use of the Bible, when the story of Samson in Judges inspired their acts of non-violent resistance. The other was the Aboriginal people of Yarralin and Lingara, who have a story of Ned Kelly as a type of Christ figure, multiplying damper and giving his life. My interest was not so much on the actual biblical texts, but on the reading strategies ie how specific communities used the Biblical text.

For those interested, here was my conclusion:
First, the potential of the Bible to act as trickster. In the plough of Parihaka and the damper of the Yarralin and Lingara people, we find that Christianity can be a “sliding, nonfixable, slippery, and evasive religion, perpetually metamorphosing into new forms that are distinct from its other and earlier forms.” When the Bible is translated and when stories are told in indigenous tongues around their own campfire, what becomes possible is the separation of acts of interpretation from the authority of the coloniser. While by no means emblematic of all colonised cultures, the presence of such creative readings is a reminder of the Bible’s subversive capacity.

Second, the priority of, and vitality in, lived experience. It is important, in contextual Bible reading among the dominated, to use the life interest of participants as the entry point in the process of reading the Bible. This is essential in enabling interpretation freed from the hegemony perceived to belong to the academy. The insight from Parihaka and the Yarralin and Lingara people is that lived experience, when brought into dialogue with the texts of the oppressor, becomes significant in developing a creative and resistant way of living.

Third, the importance of creative space. Te Whiti engaged the Bible through a primarily oral capacity, speaking in parables, while the Aboriginal concept of Dreaming seems to serve a similar function, providing a creative space in which fresh readings do emerge. Therefore the nourishment of such creative spaces might be important in nurturing communities of resistance.

In sum: reading two indigenous communities in history suggests that colonized communities can “make space” first, when Christianity is embodied in indigenous vessels, second, when lived experience is privileged and third, when readings occur in culturally creative spaces.

A number present considered it worthy of conference publication, although given the number of papers being presented here, I am not holding my breath and will probably have to look for a suitable journal.

Posted by steve at 07:57 PM


  1. Hi Steve, sounds like a great paper. Glad to se Oz is proving so stimulating for your thinking!

    I would take issue with your suggestion that the Bible is seen in those examples to be metamorphosing into something new, or even tricking anyone. Surely it is more the case, that in becoming a text for liberation, it is only evading the colonisers’ attempts to turn it into a document of oppression by stubbornly remaining what it always has been?

    Comment by Jonathan Robinson — July 7, 2010 @ 7:58 am

  2. just a quick comment before i dash to a conference –

    1. the quote was in relation to Christianity, not the Bible. I like what Andrew Walls says about this, that if you were an alien arriving from outer space and you landed first in Nigeria at an African Independent church, then travelled to evensong at Cambridge, you’d be so aware of difference in Christian expresssion. it’s what Lamin Sanneh calls the translatability of the gospel and I see it as gift, not threat.

    2. “tricking” is in relation to an earlier part of the paper, when I develop the notion of Christ the “fool” – not foolish – but somehow, in simplicity and humour, able to reveal more about us and offer us a more hopeful way of being. so the bible as trickster in that context, turned back on the shameful acts of coloniser at Parihaka.


    Comment by steve — July 7, 2010 @ 8:22 am

  3. Great paper Steve. I’m glad I was able to hear it.
    Here’s the web site of the Through The Eyes Of Another project – began a few years ago as an experiment in intercultural Bible reading initiated by Hans de Wit at the Free University of Amsterdam.

    The first phase produced lots of interesting results, written up in the book Throught The Eyes of Another

    There’s so much potential in this. I’m using some ideas from it in my own research and teaching.


    Comment by George Wieland — July 7, 2010 @ 7:11 pm

  4. thanks George. Ta for the www and the book. let’s keep talking, perhaps there is a transtasman research dimension to do this – exploring “particular social sites” in Australia and New Zealand. plus a combined journal article on being baptist and reading within communities.


    Comment by steve — July 7, 2010 @ 7:30 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.