Evangelical Christianity enters the dreaming

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The Lamb Enters the Dreaming: Nathanael Pepper and the Ruptured World, by Robert Kenny.  (Melbourne: Scribe Publishers, 2007), website

Evangelical Christianity enters the dreamingIf you only read one work of Australian history in 2007, make it this one. The Lamb Enters the Dreaming is a powerful attempt to get to the heart of questions central to Australian identity, through the story of one extraordinary man.

In early 1860, at a tiny German mission in the Wimmera region of Victoria, a young Wotjobaluk man named Nathanael Pepper converted to Christianity. After a vision of Jesus sweating blood in Gethsemane, Pepper declared his experience to the missionaries and began evangelising his people in their own language.

In Melbourne, prominent citizens crammed into an overflowing hall to hear reports of these events. Accounts of Pepper’s conversion were reported in the local and national press. A pamphlet on Pepper circulated through evangelical groups world-wide. In literate Victorian circles, Nathanael Pepper was probably a household name.

A hundred and fifty years later, Robert Kenny became intrigued by this story. Why, he wondered, did Pepper’s conversion matter so much to the missionaries and their supporters? And what did it mean to Nathanael and his people? In answering these questions, Kenny has written a profoundly important book about the nature of culture and identity, about Christianity and its place in Australian history, and about science and faith.

Many historians have examined interactions between Aborigines, settlers and missionaries during the colonial years. The Lamb Enters the Dreaming stands out for its lyrical prose, original approach and passionate engagement with broader philosophical questions. It is difficult to do justice to such a complex book in a brief review and I will only mention a few central themes.

Evangelical Christianity enters the dreamingIn the first place, Kenny takes religion seriously. He wants to interpret, in something like their own terms, both Pepper and the Moravian missionaries who evangelised him. The Moravians were the crack troops of the Protestant missionary world, setting a high standard for self-sacrifice and perseverance. In Victoria, they found themselves in the thick of a larger battle being waged between evangelical humanitarianism and settler violence. The Melbourne Argus newspaper published editorials celebrating the ‘inevitable’ decline of the Aborigines and condemning missionaries as troublemakers. Pepper’s experience provided the Moravians with powerful evidence for their claim that Aborigines shared ‘one blood’ with all humanity.

More radical is Kenny’s attempt to understand Pepper’s experience. Here he enters into informed speculation. Given what we know of indigenous cultures before invasion and of Aboriginal responses to early encounters with the invaders, he asks us to imagine what the incursion of settlers might have looked like to Aborigines.

Kenny’s brilliant insight is to place the settlers’ animals at the centre of this picture. In the totemic world of the Dreaming, the settlers’ domesticated animals, which destroyed Aboriginal land with their grazing and hard hooves, may have appeared to be dangerous sources of power for the settlers. Aboriginal raids on settlers’ cattle — in which animals were often killed but not eaten — were used by settlers as evidence of Aboriginal ‘barbarity’. Kenny interprets them as a coherent tactic aimed at destroying the invaders’ power.

In this context, the Christian emphasis on the Lamb of God could have been deeply meaningful to Aboriginal hearers — though not necessarily in the ways that missionaries intended. And so, Kenny brings us the story of Nathanael Pepper — a deeply moving account of one man’s response to the physical and spiritual rupturing of his world. While Kenny has sympathy for the missionaries, Pepper is the hero of this story.

Pepper’s identification with Christianity is seen not as a capitulation to colonisation, but as an embrace of a belief system that offered hope and power in a context of oppression, violence and disease. As Kenny points out, Pepper was not the first or last Aboriginal person to distinguish between the gospel and the destructive workings of the colonial regime. Though missionaries failed Pepper, the gospel message was very quickly out of their control and being interpreted in new ways in the indigenous church.

In the final section, Kenny uses Pepper’s story as the basis of a passionate argument about culture and identity. He attacks a cultural relativism that sees culture as the ultimate ground of human identity and interprets any cultural change as a violation of the individual. This, he contends, can easily become the basis of a new racism. Though himself agnostic, he condemns Western historians for scapegoating Christianity for past sins more rightly attributed to science and reason.

Whether or not you agree with Kenny — and his description of cultural relativism sometimes verges on caricature — the question of how we interpret cultural change is a crucial one. More than that, Kenny opens up rich new possibilities for understanding the physical and spiritual encounters that make up our common past. This task is as important now as it has ever been.



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Dear servant of God greetings in the name of our lord jesus christ. am pastor David mugisha asenior pastor and afounder of Agape christian center ministries kaliro uganda Kampala. The church is now 12 years younger but i have been amissionary to eastern uganda for more than 14 years. When i came across your webstise i was touched of how God is using you around the world, please your ministry has got an impact to us and we would like to make arelationship with you in ministry here in uganda. we are still renting in school where any time we move out because the owner does not want the church to stay there any more, we are caring for 50 ophans whose perents died of the deadly deases called aids. we are holding agospel crusade each month depending on how God has provided in different areas of uganda.we need more prayers and help please. stay in touch thanks pr david mugisha

pr David mugisha | 05 November 2008  

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