In the beginning there was the body. Now the body was formless and empty darkness was over the surface of the body and the other bodies hovered over the water. Then the body said Let there be cancer and there was cancer. And the body saw that it was a mistake so the body separated the good cell from the rebel cell and the body called this cell benign and the other cell malignant. (1)
Selina Tusitala Marsh's poem 'Genesis', of which the first few stanzas are quoted here, exemplifies how the Bible as literary inspiration has retained its vitality in the minds of contemporary writers and artists in New Zealand. Marsh's revaluation of the story of Genesis from a personal, female, bodily viewpoint gives new resonance to the biblical language that was imported when the first Christian missions were set up in Northland in the mid-nineteenth century. This important aspect of the story of colonisation led to a process of cultural influence and hybridisation that worked both ways--the Bible was an instrument in the colonisation of Indigenous people, and the Bible itself has been transformed as a result of the encounter, making way for many new creative texts.
Perhaps the other crucial metamorphosis of the Scripture that is observable in New Zealand literature is a more hazy kind of afterlife in a post-religious world. This in turn may be illustrated by Bill Manhire's short poem 'Without Form':
It is noisiest here in this middle place, cries of despair and those of praise, yet you might close your eyes and begin to walk forward. This must be how the first god did it. It was back at the beginning, and he began to sing, though the light--which was there--showed nothing. (2)
The poem evokes confusion, the search for direction and meaning in a secular world, and a lost song that bears no promise of hope or redemption. Yet in the modern world of Manhire's poem, Christian images and echoes of Genesis retain their power to resonate with spiritual needs, even though they do not bring answers.
The ten essays gathered here under the heading 'Afterlives of the Bible' aim at capturing some aspects of the deep, enduring and inspiring influence the Bible, its language, aesthetics and narrative, have exerted on the culture and literature of New Zealand. This publication follows a fruitful one-day conference which took place on 6 June 2017 at the Stout Research Centre for New Zealand Studies at Victoria University of Wellington. Marsh's poem was read at the beginning, and Manhire's at the end of the conference, framing it with the kinds of texts that prompted it in the first place.
The perspective of the issue as a whole is in keeping with that of an earlier collection of essays edited by Mark Williams, The Source of the Song: New Zealand Writers on Catholicism, which aimed at exploring 'a Catholic sense of the world, of language and of narrative', and 'how Catholic understandings of language, symbolism, the sacramental have figured in the writing' of a number of New Zealand contemporary writers influenced by Catholicism. (3) In the present series of critical essays the focus is on the Bible, on the word itself as a source of inspiration for language, aesthetics and narrative, rather than on a particular religious doctrine.
Australian literature has recently opened out to embrace comparable critical work, notably with a special issue of Antipodes devoted to 'The Sacred in Australian Literature', edited by Bill Ashcroft, Frances Devlin-Glass, and Lyn McCredden, (4) who also edited together Intimate Horizons: The Post-Colonial Sacred in Australian Literature. (5) The 'sacred' which is considered here is peculiar to Australia, one that has taken a 'post-colonial path in the aesthetic imagination' of white settlers. (6) It is closely linked to the notion of the sublime and to the experience of physical space, and appears in 'moments of aesthetic presence in which the sacred is glimpsed outside structures of interpretations'. (7) The sacred is 'an empowering feature of post-colonial experience in two ways': through the double process of interpolation of Indigenous concepts of the sacred, and of the appropriation and transformation of Western forms of the sacred. (8)
New Zealand literature has a lot in common with what is described here, with processes of transformation and hybridisation operating within a postcolonial framework. Yet what is striking is the persistence in New Zealand of the relationship between the Word as a signifier of transcendent meanings once widely shared, and the word as the writer's mundane yet inspired tool of communication, between the spirit and the letter, and the centrality of this relationship to the postcolonial vision. This is what the essays gathered in this issue demonstrate.
In New Zealand the Bible is inherently part of the history of colonisation, through the presence of mainly Protestant but also Catholic missionaries. The first mission of the Church Missionary Society was established by Samuel Marsden in 1814 in the Bay of Islands, while the first Roman Catholic mission was established by Jean-Baptiste Pompallier in 1838 in the same area. (9) Protestant missionary work was part of a global evangelical revival that focused on the rediscovery of Scriptures as central to faith: the historian Tony Ballantyne points out that '[a]round 1840, even in poor urban neighbourhoods, over 75 per cent of British families owned a Bible'. (10) But in New Zealand Catholics were at odds with the Protestant emphasis on Bible reading. Peter Lineham's essay in this issue examines a crisis attendant on this disparity that sheds light on New Zealand's cultural and political sensibility. In his analysis of the 1859 public controversy on Bible reading and its press coverage, Lineham shows that, as Governor Browne then realized, in the still young colony of New Zealand, the Bible could not serve as the core of a consensual view of Christianity--much to the disappointment of Protestants, and of the Auckland Auxiliary of the British and Foreign Bible Society, which was rebuked for its Protestant bias.
The early missionaries in their contacts with Maori dealt with the problems of translation and literacy. In 1834, William Colenso set up a printing press for the Church Missionary Society. In February of the following year, he published and began circulating copies of parts of the Bible translated into Maori, and in 1837 he produced 5,000 copies of the Maori New Testament. The Old Testament was printed in te reo Maori in 1858. (11) Maori literacy started spreading, and as Tony Ballantyne observes, while the 'missionaries strove to translate Christian texts and theology into te reo Maori [...] Maori, in turn, quickly indigenized these bodies of knowledge'. (12) Some Maori were drawn by the attractions and power of literacy that the Bible translated into Maori offered, and adopted the new religion with enthusiasm. Others had doubts, linked to the land confiscation that went on, and rejected Pakeha Christianity to establish their own versions of it, under the leadership of Maori prophets. (13) In February 1840, William Colenso published 200 copies of the Maori text of the Treaty of Waitangi (14)--missionary work and organised colonisation were part of the same endeavour. In the following decades, the Bible went on to inspire Maori prophet figures in their resistance to British settlement and colonisation; Ballantyne remarks that 'from the late 1850s [...], the Bible, Christian theology and literacy shaped [Maori] political activism and notions of community'. (15)
Maori and Pakeha interaction with the Bible and their disagreements over how it should be interpreted is analysed by Jane Stafford, who focuses on John P. Ward's diary, Wanderings with the Maori Prophets, Te Whiti and Tobu; being Reminiscences of a Twelve Month Companionship with them, from their Arrival in Christchurch in April 1882 to their Return to Parihaka in March 1883 (1883). To Ward, the Maori prophet Te Whiti seemed fundamentalist in his reading of the Bible, going against both the Pakeha-modern worldview, as influenced by Darwin's theories and as displayed at the 1882 Christchurch Exhibition, and the more exotic expectations for an exotic Maori theory of creation. Ward's critique of Te Whiti's trenchantly biblical interpretations of what he saw reveals the limits of his Pakeha perspective and the curious purchase of fundamental versions of Christianity in a period of adaptation and hybridisation.
The fertile interaction between Pakeha and Maori traditions, with the indigenisation of the Western biblical text and the transformation of Maori culture, of course, has been at work far beyond the contact zone of missionaries and the colonial period. 'On Going Out with the Tide', an exhibition at the Wellington City Gallery in 2017 at the time of the 'Afterlives of the Bible' conference, focused on Colin McCahon's works on Maori subjects in the 1960s and 1970s, during the Maori Renaissance, shedding light on some aspects of biblical influence on New Zealand culture. The curators of the exhibition leave open questions of influence and interaction: 'To what extent does [McCahon] engage with Maori cultural difference and to what extent absorb it into his syncretic Christian disposition? How does it change his Christianity? Does it subvert it?' (16)
In his essay, Gregory O'Brien examines this process of hybridisation from a dual perspective by focusing on the interaction between Colin McCahon and Ralph Hotere. He considers the mutually enriching exchanges between the two painters, with Northland acting as a crucial site of their artistic and spiritual encounter. McCahon was from a Protestant background, and his late 'word paintings' foreground passages of the Bible that prompt spiritual and moral reflection. Hotere was raised a Catholic in Northland, where Catholicism merged with Maori culture, and the words in his paintings echo Catholic ritual, prayer and chanting. Yet the two painters' common ground is their evocation of what lies beyond visible reality and beyond life, while their shared artistic reflection provided the basis of a deep friendship.
From the second half of the twentieth century, that is in the postcolonial period, the Bible's ontological status is largely that of fable, myth and allegory rather than religious text. Its literary status implies that it is prone to rewriting. In a postmodern process that supplements or displaces the official version of the story/History offered in the biblical text, rewritings of that official history may be a strategy of subversion, producing apocryphal narratives that confront dominant cultural and social codes, in response to a text where the divine, male viewpoint is privileged. (17) In the process of rewriting, sometimes a new language is created: the biblical language is echoed but also includes informal or demotic language, while humour and excess are used as critical tools. This process is identified in several of the present essays.
Anna Smaill considers Janet Frame's fascination with the narrative of apocalypse, which she traces to the influence on Frame's imagination of Christian thought and of her mother's Christadelphian beliefs. Having established these connections, Smaill shows how Frame's fictional treatment of apocalypse, between pragmatism and idealism, serves to reflect her own search for existential balance. Various critics have been eager to identify the influence of particular religious traditions in Frame's work.
Such efforts can easily prove reductive in the face of Frame's resistant writing, yet Smaill shows how the prudent use of Christian ideas can enrich the most attentive criticism in surprising ways.
Kathryn Walls analyses Margaret Mahy's fiction for young people in relation to salvation narratives which are designed to inspire hope in the face of life's difficulties. Focusing on The Tricksters, Walls demonstrates that Mahy's Christ-like figures challenge interpretation, leaving the reader with a degree of ambiguity and confusion. The themes and figures of Christianity may inform the work, as they do so much Western literature, but it is the interpretive openness and uncertainty of the Christ story rather than its legacy as doctrine that decides meanings for each reader.
Christine Lorre-Johnston examines Fiona Farrell's use of the biblical intertext in Mr Allbones' Ferrets, a postcolonial, post-modern satire about New Zealand as a New Eden for nineteenth-century settlers. Above all, the novel is a warning about the renewed risks of ecological damage that can be done in times of genetic engineering. Farrell thus challenges the persistent belief that man can play God with nature and ushers us into an intriguing world of comic misadventure and existential threat that infects settler interventions from the colonial to our own 'postcolonial eras.
Jean Anderson studies the treatment of Christ-like figures, who are also Indigenous sacrificial social victims, in three texts from Indigenous and non-Indigenous Pacific writers: James K. Baxter's 'The Maori Jesus', Patricia Grace's Fotiki and Moetai Brotherson's Le Roi absent. These narratives are subversive of the Christian story: sacrifice is reconfigured and hybridised to serve an Indigenous telos, in which redemption leads to renewal and continuity through storytelling, and a form of resurrection of Indigenous community and culture.
To various extents and in various ways, these studies recall the power of biblical narratives and motifs as political parables. Mark Brett's essay reinforces this idea by opening up an Australian perspective. He analyses the narrative of exodus, as fuelled by the Hebrew Bible, in the Australian context of Aboriginal resistance to colonial power, focusing on the links between exodus motif and aspirations for political sovereignty, and concluding that 'sovereignty is a multilayered political notion, and this complexity is foreshadowed already in the competing biblical visions of Israel's exodus', a biblical theme that also served to inspire Maori political leaders / prophets in colonial New Zealand.
For all the rewritings that the Bible has lent itself to in the contemporary period, teasing or wrenching it away from its original function as a religious text, it has nonetheless retained some of its power, for writers, as a way into the unknown, the world beyond appearances, the life of the spirit. Poetry is the privileged genre to explore this sense of the sacred. Harry Ricketts assesses to what extent Allen Curnow can be termed a 'post-Christian poet'. He first recalls that Curnow's poetry, over the several collections published between 1933 and 2001, is replete with biblical references and religious allusions, and then draws some comparisons with the poetry of Louis MacNeice, an Irish poet whose father was a Protestant clergyman and who went through a crisis of faith--two experiences he had in common with Curnow. Ricketts concludes that in the end, to both poets, the phenomenological world is the only certainty.
In contrast with Curnow's vision of life bounded by that world, the poet, literary critic, and university chaplain John Dennison offers a different view in a personal essay. He reflects on his relation to the Bible from a child growing up in an actively Brethren family and reasserts both the profoundly literary nature of the Word and its impact on personal development and lives. To him, his life as a poet is continuous with his education in biblical interpretation and its techniques and tropes. The Bible remains a potent threshold to a literary as well as a personal life: 'In an important sense, the stuff of my work as a poet--language, memory, history, play, person, place--all this I have understood as existing within an economy the coordinates of which far exceed the Bible, and for which the Bible is a reliable doorway'.
(1) Selina Tusitala Marsh, 'Genesis', Dark Sparring (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2013), p. 36.
(2) Bill Manhire, 'Without Form', Lifted (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2005), p. 11.
(3) Mark Williams, ed., The Source of the Song: New Zealand Writers on Catholicism (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1995), pp. 13, 22.
(4) Antipodes, Special Issue: 'The Sacred in Australian Literature', ed. by Bill Ashcroft, Frances Devlin-Glass, and Lyn McCredden, 19.2 (December 2005). Many thanks to Mark Brett for pointing out this publication to us.
(5) Bill Ashcroft, Frances Devlin-Glass, and Lyn McCredden, Intimate Horizons: The Post-Colonial Sacred in Australian Literature (Mulgrave: Garratt Publishing, 2012).
(6) Ashcroft, Devlin-Glass, and McCredden, Intimate Horizons, p. 3.
(7) Ashcroft, Devlin-Glass, and McCredden, Intimate Horizons, p. 18.
(8) Ashcroft, Devlin-Glass, and McCredden, 'The Sacred in Australian Literature: An Introduction', Antipodes, p. 124-5.
(9) James Belich, Making Peoples: A History of the New Zealanders (Auckland: Penguin, 1996), p. 135. On French Catholic missionaries in New Zealand, see Jessie Munro's compelling biography, The Story of Suzanne Aubert / Te Ao o Meri (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1996).
(10) Tony Ballantyne, Webs of Empire: Locating New Zealand's Colonial Past (Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 2012), p. 143.
(11) Ballantyne, Webs of Empire, pp. 156-7, and Te Ara--The Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/publishing/page-1
(12) Ballantyne, Webs of Empire, p. 138.
(13) Alexa M. Johnston, 'Christianity in New Zealand Art', Headlands: Thinking Through New Zealand Art, ed. by Mary Barr (Sydney: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1992), p. 100. Warm thanks to Dennis O'Connor for this reference.
(14) Te Ara, https://teara.govt.nz/en/publishing/page-l
(15) Ballantyne, Webs of Empire, p. 155.
(16) Wystan Curnow and Robert Leonard, 'Colin McCahon, On Going Out with the Tide, 8 April-30 July 2017', Exhibition Guide, City Gallery Wellington, p. 3.
(17) See for instance Vanessa Guignery, 'Le Deluge et l'Arche revisites: Figures apocryphes du recit biblique dans cinq ouvrages contemporains de langue anglaise,' Sources (printemps 2003), pp. 146-76, which was one of the inspirations of this project.
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|Author:||Lorre-Johnston, Christine; Williams, Mark|
|Publication:||JNZL: Journal of New Zealand Literature|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2018|
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