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Bogan Jesus


The Songs of Jesse Adams, by Peter McKinnon. Acorn Press Limited. July 2014. 

The Songs of Jesse James cover


Though 19th century literati like Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy and Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky went to town on his works and words through imaginative quests and allusions, Yeshua bar Yosef (aka Jesus Christ, son of God and son of man) has largely been 'owned' by pop-cultural pundits over the last 40 years or so.

Not counting such appearances as a TV host on scatological cartoons, or as a misplaced alien in science fiction flicks, Jesus has been notably cast as a compassionate L'enfant terrible for Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, a wise clown for John-Michael Tebelak and Stephen Schwartz, a caring stranger for Cecil B. DeMille and, misheard, an ardent advocate for dairy products for the Monty Python crew.

However, in first timer Peter McKinnon's new novelisation of the gospels The Songs of Jesse Adams, I find Christ's representation more comparable to that of US Lutheran writer Walter Wangerin Jr. The distinction is that McKinnon's is a uniquely Australian Messiah, with his guitar ablazing. How does Jesus as a Billy Thorpe-a-like strike you, Jen?

The oldest son of the Adams family (scriptural reference understood, but 'groan' nonetheless), Jesse is a troubled, long-haired balladeer driving a Holden FX. Jesse's Mum, Anna, knows he's special. After an onstage blessing from his cuz, Billy Rave (John the Baptist), Jesse wanders around like the Leyland brothers, turning home brew into French champagne and Grange while gathering his motley crew (his band and entourage, the Breakers).

Ockerisms abound unabashedly: the aromatic 1960s exude off the pages, with anti-Vietnam War campaigns, crashing surf, bush pubs, Kings Cross and trannies, the plush villains' men's-only seats of power of Melbourne, and St Kilda's 'poolrooms, brothels and dimly lit boarding houses whose curtains never opened and you didn't ask why'.

For the biblically-literate, a minority of Australians these days, there is the frisson of recognition, amusement and occasional distaste as Annie Martin (Mary Magdalene), Dinger Bell (Simon the Zealot), Big Al and Mick Gudgel (Simon Peter and Andrew), the Chunder brothers Dean and Johnny (James and John) and dodgy photographer 'Flash' Mervyn William Lester (take a bow, Judas Iscariot) are revealed.

High art? No. Engaging? Highly. Jesse Adams is on about peace; an inclusive peace that includes social outcasts such as women, immigrants, Aborigines and 'pooftahs'. Despite its subject and setting (or because of it?), McKinnon butts against relevant contemporary topics such as sexuality, the abuse of power and religion, through this sacred saga of hope, betrayal, redemption and L_O_V_E love.

Casting Christ as a bogan will rub theological feathers awry; a larger linguistic burden for many readers, however, is the unrelenting Strine and hoary cultural references. The effect may be jarringly cornball. What did you make of this, Jen?

I am quite taken with McKinnon's paraphrased reading of Jesse's central message: reconciliation. Violence, Jesse teaches, is 'a circle that never ends, achieves nothing…Someone has to stand up and show there's something better… Come on home, no grudges, all's sweet. All's forgiven…   Love wins, no matter what life throws up'.


What was Peter McKinnon thinking? Taking on the important figure of Christianity and rebranding him a guitar-toting literary hero?

It's not just that The Songs of Jesse Adams will rise or fall on the reader's acceptance of Jesse as Jesus Christ; it's that many readers will then ask themselves — why stick with the story when we know how it all ends?

I'll admit. It's a question that crossed my mind on more than one occasion. But from the opening paragraph it's apparent that McKinnon throws everything he's got at this story:'Ahead, Nicholson Street breathed emptiness; one long, deserted strip of scattered streetlamps and shadows…The rest of the world was stumbling around in its pyjamas, oblivious.'

McKinnon knows more than a little about living a life 'oblivious'. Several years ago, the 'corporate survivor' (a psychologist, he spent three decades studying human behaviour within the business sector) somehow found his way to World Vision. It was from this altruistic platform that he started asking himself the big questions.

That McKinnon then turned to writing seems a natural progression. Where else can you thrash out ideas or test out what it is to be human, and still get out alive?

While Jesse is the novel's undeniable pivot, the author saves some of his best alchemy in summoning up the world's lost and forgotten: 'A couple of lonely strands of hair rested randomly across the top of his head in conceited defiance of raging baldness… In shape and form he resembled something a hunter might hang in his trophy room.'

This isn't just for show, although technical skill is keenly apparent. There's a palatable tenderness in these observations. And therein lies the answer to our earlier question. At least partly. Why stick with the story? Because it gives back in spades.

The simmering political climate, the gender interactions, the Aussie banter of a bygone era, and, of course, the songs — the commitment and eye for detail make for a debut novel that's near pitch perfect.

I see where you're going with the Billy Thorpe-like reference Barry, but for me Jesse Adams is more reminiscent of Sixto Rodriguez, the US folk singer whose radical song-writing renders Bob Dylan's ruminations lullabies in comparison, and who still lives a simple life despite his latter-day fame.

While 'the Strine' as you put it, Barry, is indeed, unrelenting, it carries with it the mark of authenticity, such as the scene of Jesse being witnessed to by Aboriginal people in the bush, rather than angels in the wilderness. This isn't just poetic; it's somehow fittingly political, too.

At its most transformative, The Songs of Jesse Adams reminds us that belief based on anything but love can do immense damage — a message as relevant and urgent today as it was in the 1960s and, dare I say? 33AD.

Jen Vuk and Barry GittinsJen Vuk is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in The Herald Sun, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, The Age and The Good Weekend. Barry Gittins is a communication and research consultant for the Salvation Army who has written for Inside History, Crosslight, The Transit Lounge, Changing Attitude Australia and The Rubicon.

Topic tags: Barry Gittins, Jen Vuk, book review



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Existing comments

Years ago the dreadfully earnest Albert Schweitzer set out on his doomed (they all are) Quest for the Historical Jesus. Peter McKinnon sounds like he makes a valiant attempt to comprehend Jesus and relate him to modern Australia and its social milieu. He succeeds to some extent and fails in others, I think. Not because he is irrelevant or not politically correct, but, once again, like so many others, I think he may be unduly earnest. Moral earnestness needs to be avoided. Jesus, ultimately, is the Ultimate Koan: there is no "answer" which can just be trotted out. Herein I think many theologians and earnest Christians commit involuntary self-impalement. Jesus was not just on about social change. Indeed, if you look at the New Testament piece on rendering to Caesar, you could say he was apolitical and more concerned with the inner reformation. Jesus accepted people but he was also extremely demanding (viz the Parable of the Rich Young Man). Rather than a "bogan Christ", I would like to see a Barry Humphries type Christ: a sort of resurrected Sandy Stone who moved beyond Beryl and found himself.

Edward Fido | 29 August 2014  

Edward Fido: "Years ago the dreadfully earnest Albert Schweitzer set out on his doomed (they all are) Quest for the Historical Jesus." Such Quests are doomed if the Gospels are accepted as "God-guaranteed" accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus. Thankfully they are becoming recognised as later Idealisations of the actual events and persons. We can give thanks because this lays one important plank for a basis of world harmony and peace. While everyone is claiming to be part of a group who has the Truth, the Whole Truth, and nothing but The Truth, there will be disputes, disagreements, and even wars and genocides. Once we see that there are many interpretations of God's Reality, each tailored to the degree of development of the 'believers', we can make progress.

Robert Liddy | 29 August 2014  

Robert: I think we tend to agree. The Eastern Church Fathers and Mothers have tended to believe that, in this life, there is no final solution to the search for the truth. No one person has the ultimate answer. That does not throw out Christian Orthodoxy for them. I think we are reaching the stage where what someone said about multiculturalism needing to grow into a tolerant multi-ethnicism where individual differences are acknowledged and cherished within a broader community applies to religion. There is nothing wrong with a specific religiosity, but it must not be allowed to, either overtly or by stealth, dominate, persecute and destroy other spiritualities. In the history of human society this is a relatively new concept. We need to develop it and embed it in normal life.

Edward Fido | 29 August 2014  

The flaw in a Bogan Jesus is that bogan culture is exclusive, it thrives on celebrating certain kinds of Australian vulgarity and personality, to the exclusion of anything else. It is inverse snobbery that not only is often judgemental of people who are not like us, but even of Australians who do not fit the stereotypes. A Bogan Jesus that would not welcome Albert Schweitzer to the table because he is "dreadfully earnest" is the kind of Jesus we can do without.

CLOSE READING | 03 September 2014  

I stumbled on to the article "Bogan Jesus" and thought you might be interested to learn that France's prestigious newspaper "Le Monde Diplomatique", August 2014, carries a two-full-page article on Bogan "Culture" in Australia. Your title caught my eye, because as an Australian former Catholic priest become atheist, I may, after reading "The Songs of Jesse Adams", post an article on it in my Blog (blindfaithblindfolly.wordpress.com). The Blog is an extension of my self-published book, "From Illusions to Illumination. The Itinerary of a Franciscan Priest from Catholicism to Atheism". Like Clive James, I am an expat Kid from Kogarah, but unlike him, after doctoral studies in Theology in Paris and ten years teaching in the States, I have lived for forty years in France. For the record, I sometimes use the nom-de-plume, "Frank O'Phile" ...

Frank O'Meara | 07 September 2014  

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