Robert Kenny, The Lamb Enters the Dreaming: Nathanael Pepper & the Ruptured World (Melbourne: Scribe Books, 2007).
Reviewed by Mark Hutchinson
This is a bold book in many respects. The author leads with his chin, successively taking on rationalist scientism, Marxist stereotypes of missions history, Foucault, Duchamp, ‘the Borgesian fantasy’, the hermeneutic of suspicion, and post-modern relativism. Robert Kenny, a Fellow of the Australian Centre at the University of Melbourne, clearly has no passionate commitment to his own future employment in the Australian university system, in which these very ideologies loom large. Ironically, for an Irish-Australian former Catholic, he ends up validating many of the perspectives which evangelical historians have been championing in historical literature for the last two decades. The reason is that Kenny has attempted to reconstruct a historical moment involving contact history in fine detail and, using ethnographical approaches, has attempted to tell the inside stories of religious change. At this level, the subjects – Aboriginal individuals such as Nathanael Pepper, whose conceptual world acts as the boundaries for the exploration, and Moravian missionaries such as Friedrich Spieseke and F. A. Hagenauer – are no longer simply stereotypes or building blocks for larger theories. Rather, they stand out as humans. And this is the point. Departing from Richard Rorty’s observation that history is not constructed of major turnings, but is ‘an endless network of changing relationships’ among real people living lives in process, Kenny comes to some startling conclusions. Some of these – such as the resistance of many missionaries to colonization, the radical identity effects of religious conversion and bible translation, or the insistance that Australian religious history can only be understood as a confluence of international flows - are not new. The startling factor is that they emerge from the pen of a mainstream Australian historian.
It is also a beautifully written book. As an exploration of metaphors, the book is written in a clear, engaging style which displays both the humanity of the author and of his subjects. The central metaphors for the book are ‘the Lamb’ and ‘the Blood’, which act as shifting, but common, ground for translation between the European (which itself is constructed of a shifting soundtrack of English, Scots, Irish and German voices) and Aboriginal (a similar mixed soundtrack of Wotjobaluk, Kulnai, Minang etc., voices) understandings of the world. In a method leading to what Kenny calls ‘symbolic perception’, elements such as Pepper’s hut act as ikons, intending larger meanings – the reading of which is the central role of the book. Such readings enable him to clear away imposed historiographies, and read the ikon for what it is – ‘It was not that they [the evangelicals] were pleased to have enforced their culture onto Pepper. It was that in his hut they saw a future for his people’. [p. 82] Stylistically, the book interacts with artistic forms – poetry, various novelists, visual arts [e.g. neo-Dadaism, p. 169]– and artefacts to create ‘mental objects’ which interplay with one another, and leap out of the page in ways which are often gripping. It also has its own poetry – the description, for instance, of modern flight to Europe as ‘a bored moment stretched across twenty hours’ not only elicits responses from his readers’ own experience, but helps them make the invidious comparison with travel and spatial conciousness in the nineteenth century. It is one end of the pole, by which the reader can interpret their own position. Other lines – for instance, the statement that the Anglican Church was ‘a community as upheaved as the earth of the diggings’ - make the reader sit up, and thus follow more attentively [p. 94]. In one startling realisation, he reinterprets the central motif of the Lamb and the totemic significance of European animals through Aboriginal eyes, in a way that brings the reader face to face with the nature of his/her own perception. The ‘religious symbolism of the Lamb and the white things wandering around the paddocks was lost to the settlers, but not to the local people.’ This was for Europeans ‘the result of centuries of separation’ between ‘the spiritual and physical worlds’. Yes, we knew that – but have lived (as John Thornhill has noted) in a state of perpetual forgetting. In a qualification of Jackson’s great descriptive epithet ‘White man got no Dreaming’, we are forced to realise, yes, European Australians do have a Dreaming – but we have lost the ability to dream. Just as Aboriginal people entered ‘conversion’ as a restoration of a ruptured moral order, so modern Australians also live with a tension which they either avoid through forgetfulness, or resolve through some other type of conversion.
Many explorations of Aboriginality talk about rather than communicate the sense of loss and grief intrinsic to the story. Kenny’s description of his own narrative of discovery (the ‘I’ which helps bind the work together, the edges of which Kenny is careful to define, so that narrative does not replace the search for historical understanding, p. 222), ending at Nathanael Pepper’s gravestone, actually carries the reader among the grazing sheep, the gums and bull-oaks. It does not take us so successfully to Herrnhut or into evangelical drawing rooms, but the gap is filled by Kenny’s sense of surprise at the positive role which evangelicals played in providing alternative futures for aboriginal people. His identification of the ‘search for the figure of ridicule’ [p.36] and ‘the moral arrogance of the present’ [p.48] in mainstream Australian historiography are the key to his discovery of the self-redemptive ideology at the core of much modern secular history and its dismissal of Christianity as anything other than a demonic cultural extension of capitalism. ‘Having rejected Christianity, it is rehabilitated, and thus righteous.’ [p.326] In this realisation, Kenny opens the opportunity for modern historiography to escape from being dominated by its own reaction against Victorian moralism. Christianity is not merely a description of a world subject to suffering and death, but it is a remedy for dong something about it. Historians are free to disagree as to the success of the remedy, but not to distort the central self-identification. Kenny’s story oscillates back and forth in separate narratives organised around particular metaphors (‘Noah’s Curse’, ‘Pepper’s Hut’, ‘The enemy of Souls’, ‘The Confusion of Tongues’… etc) rather than historical chronology, knitting together the causalities which converge on Nathanael Pepper so as to make this relatively minor figure a focus of historical meaning. By so doing, he avoids the traps of unilinear histories, while still coming to satisfying understandings of this contested past.
The metaphors, of course, have their cost. In dealing with theology as ethnography, and theology as a reflection of Christian thought, there is the inevitable flattening. Once the reader is aware of this, it will be useful for he or she to make a mental note treat the metaphors as adequate in the direction in which they are pointing, but less so in the directions from which they have come. For instance, the Christian idea of all humans being made ‘One Blood’ in God (adapted from John Harris’ ground breaking book of the same name) is flattened to mean ‘descent from one set of parents’ (Adam and Eve), in order to use the idea as a metaphor in the debate between nineteenth century monogenists and polygenists. While ‘One Blood’ does include this idea, both Harris’ reference and the Pauline text actually point to a larger theology of the ongoing redemptive process of the universally sovereign God. Likewise, one had the feeling that if he had taken Augustine as seriously in his chapter on ‘The Enemy of Souls’ as he did earlier in the book, Kenny would have unpicked the core problem of ‘structural evil’, a condition which seduced many well-intentioned Christian projects in his sphere of interest. (Denominationally-convinced Christians have ever been better at identifying the flaws in the positions of others, than in themselves). The process – which is one of identifying ruling metaphors in order to describe the process of intercultural translation - works within the terms of the book, but doesn’t necessarily do service to the sophistication of Christian thought. This is a necessary trade off in support of the book’s approachability and style. Kenny is not writing theology, he is exploring the boundaries of human identity – particularly that of Nathanael Pepper and his people. Likewise, Kenny’s off-handed interpretation that ‘Bad news is no news’ [p.13] in the nineteenth century Christian press ignores the larger ‘missionary mindset’ which he elsewhere attempts to reconstruct. One of the reasons that Australia didn’t get much coverage in popular Christian journals was that ‘missions’ for most Europeans usually meant ‘overseas’ – and so in British countries the list of ‘missionary fields’ tended to excise those ‘pink bits’ which coincided large scale British settlement (ie. which shared common British identity). Aboriginal people often missed out on missionary support because of the dominance of India (British, but a separate ‘Empire’), China/ Asia, the Pacific, and Africa in British consciousness. A broader understanding of the boundary fixing between Anglican and Presbyterian churches in England, and how these worked out in Australia, would also have provided insight into why the Presbyterians preferred Moravian missionaries, and perhaps why they were so keen to ‘buy’ the services of the Peppers out from underneath Spieseke’s nose.
One of the really pleasing elements of the book is the ease with which Kenny uses literature by writers such as Lamin Sanneh and Brian Stanley. This attention to international and non-secular literature makes the book an interesting ‘tween work, given that Australia has little of the phenomenon seen in American and European history – of historians interested in religion for its own sake. An extension of this into the work of Andrew Walls, Don Lewis and others might have speeded up Kenny’s central understanding of Christianity as a religion of translation. In particular, Adrian Hastings’ The Construction of Nationhood: Ethnicity, Religion and Nationalism (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997) deserves attention for support and extension of Kenny’s translation thesis. Nathanael’s appropriation of Christianity-as-translation as a means of people building fits Hastings’ assertion that:
The Bible provided, for the Christian world at least, the original model of the nation. Without it and its Christian interpretation and implementation, it is arguable that nations and nationalism, as we know them, could never have existed.
As Piggin et al note, conversion and religious revival (as opposed to revivalism) are by their nature processes of reenchantment, of healing the disruption of the moral order, of conversion.
While reading this book, I was (and am) engaged in writing a history of a spiritual renewal movement. Almost everything that Kenny says about the moment-of-translation circumscribed by Nathanael Pepper’s life can be applied to many Christian revival settings. The Western districts he describes, after all, are also the location in which Barry Chant describes as the birthplace of Australian Pentecostalism among the Methodist ‘Sounders’. Just north west of Ramahyuk, moreover, was the childhood home of James Hickson. Hickson was the grandson of one Protector of Aborigines, and the son of another, and must have been moved by the weakness of the Church in the face of the impact of disease on Aboriginal peoples. He grew up to become the leading Anglo-Catholic spiritual healer of the 1920s. This moment of translation may thus have been more significant than we yet know. Kenny is right to leave the future open to this future –the moment of translation affected Europeans (Ellerman, Hagenauer) as well as Aborigines (Pepper, his family, and his many descendants) [pp. 192, 220]. Only ‘blindness engendered by theory’, Kenny notes, ‘could not see a rich religious ethos’ on both sides. [p. 154]
Inevitably, there are occasional editorial slips – but they are few, and rarely mar the flowing narrative. No doubt, those who have committed themselves to the history of Henry Buckle (‘Just the facts, ma’am’) will dislike this sort of reconstruction. Part of Kenny’s achievement, however, is to show that – if we are to gain any understanding of the inner lives of nineteenth century Australians – historians are left with few better alternatives. For once, ‘conversion’ and spiritual encounters are treated as real, distinct and identifiable forces in history – reinterpreted with the necessary subtlety, and in terms of real human relationship. Kenny attempts to limit the force of his own language/ narrative, and not to overstep himself by intruding on the ‘necessary silences’ of history [p. 222]. It ‘is this convergence of [spiritual] idiom, rather than coincidence of indigenous content with Christian content, which explains the dynamic of conversion’ [p. 235] Linguistic apprehension remains language – but never ‘mere’ language. It mobilizes people to action, action which brings change. As he is dying of tuberculosis, Pepper is convinced by the language of the missionaries not to continue seeing the indigenous healer, or panghal: ‘And why not? In the end, the treatment of the healer could prove no more efficacious than that of the European doctor. Both traditions knew little about the disease wasting his lungs. Only magic with real power could save him.’ [pp. 256-7] It is his apparent healing through prayer to Jesus which ‘completes’ the process of conversion, and enables Pepper to incorporate the Lamb in his Dreaming, to indigenize this previously foreign faith. ‘Now it was clear: not the panghal’s healing, nor European medicine (the doctor had given up) but prayer, faith, Jesus, the power of the Lamb had saved him.’ [p. 275] When the ‘power of the Church’ and the ‘power of the spirits’ had failed both Europeans and Aborigines, direct faith in Jesus, the Lamb, saved them both. Here was the planting of a true Australian faith. As Piggin et al show, it was a tree which came into flower at Elcho Island in 1978, with the ‘vindication of the vernacular’ [p. 326] in a revival which spread across the inland, and entrenched itself in reformulated Aboriginal communities. It was a realization of the dream of early evangelical Christians, who resisted the fragmentation of the world by the ‘Enlightenment project’. ‘They used their Scripture’, Kenny notes, ‘to prove "One Blood". This was not argument but stubborn assertion, a faith in our commonality, which may still be the only way of our salvation.’ [p.341]
This is a fine piece of work, and is already attracting the necessary laurels and brickbats. It is too broad and subtle for most practicing historians to emulate, however, and so I don’t look to see it acting as the basis for a school. It does restore one’s faith in Australian historiography, however, to see something of this level of accomplishment and genuine understanding emerge. Perhaps there is a future beyond the history wars for what has been a very troubled discipline.