Heroes of the Faith

February 2018: Tim Winton attuned to God's 'shining presence'

February 4 2018 

Acclaimed Australian novelist Tim Winton has a sharp eye for the presence of God in nature, in flawed and vulnerable characters, and truth telling, and has no time for religion reduced to a ‘form of accountancy’. Paul Mitchell reflects on a Christian whose writing succeeds in engaging, rather than repelling, as it explores Christian themes with an ‘uncommon depth’.

It is stunning to consider that Tim Winton was scribbling away on Cloudstreet, the novel consistently judged Australia’s favourite, when he was only in his late 20s. The book is a paean to post-World War II Australian life, a work of technical brilliance and heart. Despite the tragedy at its core, it celebrates the ties that bind us lovingly to each other, the earth and the divine. Winton has said he can’t write poetry, but from its opening lines, Cloudstreet’s full of it:

“Will you look at us by the river! The whole restless mob of us on spread blankets in the dreamy briny sunshine skylarking and chiacking about for one day, one clear, clean, sweet day in a good world in the midst of our living.”

Before Cloudstreet, Western Australian born and raised Winton won the Vogel Prize for his first novel, An Open Swimmer (1982). Twenty-five years of critical praise, best-sellers and prizes have followed, including three Miles Franklin Awards, Australia’s most prestigious literary gong. Now 57, Winton is one of Australia’s – and the world’s – most loved, respected and acclaimed authors. And he is a Christian, belongs to his local Anglican Parish, and is known to enjoy High-Church Anglican services: “The sacrament of the Eucharist has become the central focus, the still point, if you will; I receive it on my knees...” he wrote in his recent memoir, The Boy Behind the Curtain.

Unlike in the United States, where Christian or religious literary themes have always been acceptable and marketable, the Australian publishing landscape is deeply skeptical of what is often termed “organised religion”. It seems miraculous that an Australian writer who is Christian and who ponders religious questions in his fiction is so popular and critically acclaimed.

It is a conundrum for which even Winton appears to have no clear answer. When his third novel That Eye the Sky was published in 1986, Helen Garner described it as Australia’s first “Christian novel”. Set in rural Australia, it deals with a maverick preacher and a boy, ‘Ort’, with a mystical bent. Winton told me in an interview I conducted with him in 2006 for Breakpoint magazine that he thought “it would get hell’s own kicking, but it was very well reviewed. . . I mean, in Australia, a story about a kid who’s basically a 12-year-old Blakean mystic? You gotta be kidding!”

While he has received a backlash from feminist literary critics for his approach to writing female characters, a backlash for writing about religion, even Christianity, has never come, right up to his most recent novel, Eyrie (2013). Set in suburban Fremantle, it follows the life of a down-and-out man in a low-budget rental high-rise who mystically sacrifices himself to save the life of a young boy.

It is clear there is something about Winton and the way he writes about religion that means audiences are willing to at least accept it and, at most, engage with it thoroughly.

Australian short fiction doyen Cate Kennedy once told me if a work of fiction has a distinctive and powerful voice she will “follow it anywhere”. Winton has one of Australian fiction’s most recognisable voices, powered by elegant turns of phrase that combine high artistry with the vernacular. Mix it with literary prizes and best-seller runs on the board and audiences turn to his work regardless of themes. But the way Winton writes about religion and spirituality, informed by his own experiences and beliefs, is just as important in ensuring they attract rather than repel audiences.

In her book of essays Everywhere I Look, Helen Garner recalled a visit from Winton when she was sharing a house with a recently born-again Christian who kept a Bible beside him at all times, quoting from it moralistically and regularly. After the housemate had quoted chapter and verse at them for a while, Winton gently advised the bloke to give the Book a rest and let his life be his witness.

Ironically for a novelist, Winton has done something similar in his fiction: he has let his characters’ lives speak about their religious yearnings, doubts and triumphs, while leaving preaching and didactics well alone.

Winton grew up in a fundamentalist household and, as he said in an interview with Jan Sinclair in Zadok Perspectives, “The Bible was everything... the sole source of revelation, education, reflection.”

He told the ABC’s The Spirit of Things in 2004 that he still read the Bible and that Luke’s was his favourite gospel because he was a “doer and a doctor”. He said he also liked the Song of Solomon, the Psalms, and the Book of James because “Luther thought it was a story epistle and it scraped into the canon by the skin of its teeth.” There’s no doubt Winton inherited his faith from his family’s biblical tradition, but his overall approach to spirituality and religion took a different emphasis in his early 20s.

“I respond most viscerally to the stream of Christian thinking, which is an old one, that reveres the natural world...” he told me, adding that for many years he wrote from this point of view unawares. “Despite my religious education in fundamentalist and later more radical church groups grappling with a social theology, I realised eventually that it was this natural world that fed my faith, that kept the old flame flickering and it was, once I looked back, the constant in my novels and stories, the stuff that sustained and cowed and renewed my characters. The way they confronted that ache within them, or how it best confronted them.”

Winton’s fiction has a religious sensibility that oftentimes readers will casually imbibe. They appreciate his prose, his insights into human nature, his poetic descriptions of the natural world and his ability, put simply, to spin a great yarn. But then they agree with the critics: Winton’s work has an uncommon depth. It seems the substance of that depth is his capacity to powerfully communicate in his writing the divine as it is revealed in nature.

“In my work there is this constant encounter with the landscape which contains past, present and future all at once, something I’ve learned more about through process thought and quantum theory, and Aboriginal culture,” Winton told me. “Nature, the world, God’s body as the medieval mystics saw it: wherever you go, there it is, even when you disrespect it, or forget it. You turn from it at your own physical and psychic and moral peril.”

The compassion Winton has for people is evidenced in his full, flawed and eminently likable characters. It is also clear from his impassioned Palm Sunday 2015 speech pleading with governments to soften their hearts towards the plight of refugees. But he also asks how we can understand what it is to love if we don’t appreciate the natural world, “this fragility and beauty that sustains us, that is a gift to us, a prime and sacred responsibility for us?”

Winton added that if we don’t find “meaning in the constant making and remaking and refreshing of the very matter we live by, if we don’t see something sacramental in it, we’re doomed fools with contempt for the source of all life. Take this out of your theology and our human lives are a pretty grim trajectory. If matter is not sacred then all good things must wait for another world and most of what we do and try for is merely aimed at that. This reduces life to a grim and cruel rehearsal, and religion to a form of accountancy.”

His position on nature’s sacredness is sharp and clear, and when in his fiction Winton addresses religion, or more directly employs Christian themes, a similar eye for truth-telling appears.

In his short story cycle The Turning, Winton deals head on with some powerful Christian themes in the eponymous story. Raelene lives with her abusive husband Max in a coastal caravan park. She meets Sherry, a newly converted evangelical Christian living in town with her husband Dan, also a Christian, but a former alcoholic. Raelene wants to have Sherry’s faith, but the couple’s pat answers and unswerving belief annoy her. She can’t figure out why God is not talking to her when He seems only too happy to talk to her friends.

Raelene’s husband rapes, bashes and, we’re led to assume, kills her. Enduring this, she gazes on a mini Christ in a snow dome, and it’s as if Raelene becomes Christ at the moment she experiences faith in him – and her death. The story’s conclusion offers a compressed Christian journey: conversion (often referred to as a ‘turning’), suffering, and eventual union with Christ, a process that normally takes a lifetime.

Critic James Ley said the story provided confirmation for anyone who thought Christianity was a sexist and masochistic faith. But that doesn’t take into account Jesus’ passivity in the face of death, or the fact that Raelene, in her moment of epiphany and torture, is clearly imbued with a spirit of non-violence.

Winton told me early drafts of the story were a challenge; he was concerned about its violence and the fact it was from a woman’s perspective. He anticipated “being simultaneously labelled blasphemous and politically incorrect, which is sometimes my lot,” yet persisted due to the story’s parabolic nature and the way he saw Raelene enlarged and empowered by faith.

Over many years, as a reader and writer, I have been enlarged and empowered by Winton’s faith as revealed in his work. It has taught me to see nature as God’s shining presence in the world and to embrace my own and others’ imperfections. I believe his work has brought me closer to God, but Winton would be unconvinced.

“I’m just grateful if a novel will bring me closer to people,” he told Breakpoint magazine. “What I get from a novel is often to do with having lived with these characters – the Joads, let’s say [Grapes of Wrath] – entered their lives. So that some little moment of hard-wrought wisdom, some epiphany, might be yours by association.”

For Winton, there is a sense that, as Auden said of poetry, writing fiction doesn’t make much happen, that it even seems somewhat useless. “Especially when I compare it to the environmental activism I’m involved with much of the time, or the really gutsy work for change that people undertake in their own fields every day.” And, while adding that after the Old Testament and Shakespeare all writers are in a sense recycling, he doesn’t appear in any hurry to give up his so-called useless activity. “It gives me a pleasure I can’t explain. This uselessness used to bother me, but I’m resigned to it. Maybe that’s age, eh?”

Paul Mitchell is a Melbourne writer. His latest book is a novel-in-stories, We. Are. Family. (MidnightSun Publishing, 2016).

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