The first time I was told I wasn’t a Christian because of something I’d written was after the publication of my first book, This Little Piggy Stayed Home: Barlow, Chambers and the Mafia. As the title suggests, it was about the Mafia, which I’d been investigating for my employer, The West Australian Newspaper, for more than a year. I’d sat down and interviewed actual mob bosses, and discovered that when they use profanity, there’s no rhyme or reason to it. They use the word fuck as a verb, a noun, an adjective, an adverb, a comma, semi-colon, em dash … all within the same sentence. It was almost impossible to understand, and certainly impossible to write. But it was informative. It told me that these men, who had no regard for other human beings and would quite literally do anything to them to make money, were abusing the English language in the exact same way. And I wanted to represent something of that in my book. It was important. It was truth. It communicated something. My publisher told me to cut the language back — so I did, and the result was a faint echo of what I’d heard and witnessed on the streets. Still … the elders of our church came to me on its publication and said, “People are saying you’re not a Christian because of the bad language in your book.”
Here’s the irony. I was a drug addict by this stage. Investigating the Mafia will do that to you. I had spent the year with addicts, prostitutes, dealers. Been in their houses, seen shit smeared on their walls, kids sitting naked in their filth all day. Had people OD and die before I could speak to them again. Developed neuroses. Panic attacks. Had a contract taken out on me by a guy in prison. I’d come to the attention of some very powerful and very dangerous people, and a day didn’t go by that I didn’t fear something bad was going to happen. In other words, I needed community. And the community, because of a bad word, told me I didn’t belong.
We moved from that community to a country town on the south coast of Western Australia, ostensibly to hide from the mob. I became the news editor of a local paper, the Esperance Express. We also joined the local church, where I ran the youth group. I was also a music critic. I ran a weekend camp for Aboriginal kids from the mission in Kalgoorlie, and let them listen to several bars of a song by the Irish folk group, Hothouse Flowers. The week after the camp I got a visit from the church elders, asking me not only to step down from leading the youth group, but also to leave the church. Why? Because I had played the boys the song … a song about songs, about singing songs, and about celebrating music. But worse than that, I had written a CD review of an album called Deep Forest.
‘What’s wrong with that?’ I asked them.
‘It’s deep, deep in the forest … that’s where the evil spirits are.’
I had wanted to be a writer for as long as I could remember. As a kid, it was the only thing I wanted to be. But I didn’t know what it was to be one — not really. I had grown up in a fundamentalist Christian sect, in which it was drilled into us that even though we lived IN the world, we were not to be OF the world. This, of course, severely limits your self-expression. It limits your vocabulary too. It stunts your emotional growth. It denies you the opportunity to ask questions. There’s simply no space for doubt or confusion or disbelief when everyone around you has all the answers — the truth. Not an ideal place from which to produce art.
I became a journalist at the age of 20, and this was a different type of limitation, but a limitation nevertheless. Journalism is formulaic, regimented, restricted in similar ways to being brought up in a fundamentalist sect. It is also about providing answers … and quickly, without reflection, without real knowledge, without a pause to consider how your story might impact the public discourse. Only the elite among us were allowed to write outside the parameters, and I was nowhere near being on their level. This reality hit me over and over, but the occasion that sticks out in my memory is an assignment to report on a group of bell ringers from the UK. I met them in the bell tower of the St Georges Cathedral in Perth, and was struck by their enthusiasm and passion and commitment to what they loved doing. I had none of that passion — not that I could locate, anyway. There was nothing in my life that was even remotely commensurate with their enthusiasm. I was just the guy who wrote contrived and disengaged stories about people who felt free enough to go around the world ringing church bells.
This sense of disengagement with my own humanity became even more profound on September 27, 1996, when I crossed the line from journalist to … whatever it was … as I stood on the beach at Gracetown, helping and then watching, as we dug nine bodies from the sand after the cliff collapse. I was totally lost. I knew immediately that I had no words for the reality playing out before me … friends lying beneath tarpaulins, their necks and backs twisted grotesquely out of shape … I had no emotional palette to draw from … not even a deep sense of faith to give me a framework for understanding this.
I had another crisis year, at the end of which I decided to put aside the shackles of journalism and be the professional writer I had always wanted to be. I got a contract to write for a Christian magazine, but in the preparation of my very first column I discovered that I had nothing to say. NOTHING. There was no well to draw from. So, I wrote a novel called The Welldigger, and it was as devoid of emotion and self-awareness as my column for the magazine. It’s a peculiar thing to discover that you are vacuous. Thirty years old, with a career in journalism behind me and a published book, but no capacity to draw from that cistern of human feeling that was required to say something … anything … that would contribute to the human dialogue.
I went to Bible college a year later to learn something … anything … to discover things to say … to learn theology that I could maybe pass on. But it wasn’t the theologians there who challenged me, but the counsellors, David and Ray. They put me through the ringer, as they did everyone — particularly the men. It was from David and Ray that I discovered what being a man was truly all about: our capacity for violence, our capacity and appetite for destructive behaviour, our desire to be cruel, to take, to consume. It was from Ray that I first heard that men either want to destroy beauty or consume it. It was from David that I heard that I should never see my reflection in the mirror and not remind myself of the immense capacity I have to wound people. I learnt from them that there are no easy responses to these truths — there is only the wrestle. There is only the isolation of the wrestle. That it’s when I am alone, and confronted with the pain and solitude of who I am, when all I want to do is turn to my addictions to salve the agony, that that’s the opportunity for grace, for growth, for maturity. That place is the wilderness. That place is the cross. That place is our humanity.
As Bono says, in his book of interviews Bono on Bono, ‘I’d be in big trouble if karma was going to finally be my judge. I’d be in deep shit. It doesn’t excuse my mistakes, but I’m holding out for Grace. I’m holding out that Jesus took my sins onto the Cross, because I know who I am, and I hope I don’t have to depend on my own reliogisity … When I look at the Cross of Christ, what I see up there is all my shit and everybody else’s.’
Still, I wasn’t writing. I certainly wasn’t a Christian writer. But I was learning something that might prove to be vital: the naked man on the cross, the symbol of the Christian faith I had been raised in — the Crucified God, as Jurgen Moltmann describes him — represents the dark isolation of the human condition. Humanity’s God-forsakenness. If I was serious about confronting that darkness as a writer, it meant confronting myself — my own violence, my own lust, my own capacity for cruelty. But on the flipside, to also celebrate beauty, to long for glory, to be open to receiving and giving love … in other words, what I saw on the cross was an invitation to fully grapple with the vast dimensions of the human experience, the deep well of emotion that people endure and enjoy, the vast terrain of complexity and the endless intricacies of the human mind. And at the heart of all of this, our deep, deep desire to love, to know, to engage one another.
But still … I did not write. I was a closed book. I studied theology for 10 years and got a PhD. That narrowed my capacity with words even more than fundamentalism and journalism combined. I entered Laidlaw College as a lecturer, and the same thing happened there — vicelike limitations on my freedom to think, to feel, to speak, let alone to write. What I had once thought was a trajectory of freedom and expression was becoming a rapidly narrowing lane with trucks on either side about to box me in and crush me.
It took leaving the college, leaving formal theology, and leaving the church, to reveal to me a way out. And it came through the final words of a dying man.
I sat with Dr Jared Noel for five weeks before his death, in order to write his book. It was his gift to me … the chance finally to be a writer. I’ve told the story often; what I haven’t talked about so much was the true impact of that time, in terms of actually confronting the ultimate problem all humans face — death. Because Jared was a surgeon, as well as a candid, fearless guy, we had the freedom to talk about suffering in all its dimensions in a way I never had. We talked about the claustrophobia of dying. The hopelessness of it. The physical pain. The physiological mechanics that were breaking Jared down in front of me. We kept returning to a passage in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, in which Prince Myshkin, having seen a reproduction of Hans Holbein’s painting, The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb, in the home of the character Rogozhin, says that it has the power to make the viewer lose his faith. The point of going here was our mutual commitment to confronting death and suffering without fear or favour, pushing ourselves to discuss what was happening to Jared outside of the conventions, Christian or otherwise, that typically make us talk about such things in very specific ways — ways that protect us, that shield us from fear, that prevent us from losing hope. We went so far that one day we were both aware of the shadow of death creeping towards us from the corners of the room — and we were both scared. A week later, I was in hospital with pancreatitis and told I could die within days — and it was that moment in Jared’s room that came to mind … that actually, death is not a benign force, but it’s something that pursues us, especially if we have shown it our face.
Whatever that experience was, the point of it to me was this: I was finally becoming a writer who was prepared to delve into the depths of the human condition, and try, with my very limited palettes, of words, emotions, experiences, questions, to bring some of those dimensions into the light. To face death … to walk to the gates of hell … to free-dive into the darkest, deepest places of the human soul in order to write from that place in a way that would give others a voice, in a way that might give them the freedom to be as human as they can be. This idea — this sense of calling — gripped me quite fiercely.
Australian author DBC Pierre says it this way: ‘We have the privilege of writing life as it is, which can make our work glisten with truth.’
He also says this: ‘We have to bury ourselves and dig our way out. Nobody else can license us, we have to license ourselves, we have to make a pact for the abyss and not give a shit. Write or die.’
I was listening to Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly constantly at the time. The album is a literary masterpiece among all the other things that it is. Kendrick the majestic poet pulled me to a new place entirely as a writer. His use of words, his use of rhythm, the fearlessness with which he tore the lid off humanity and allowed us to peer inside. Tore the lid off his own soul and let us peer inside. How he brought God into that picture. How he crafted the album around the lines of a poem. Was it possible, I asked myself. Was it possible to be like this in prose, to take the reader so deep into our condition, so deep into their own souls, that they are changed forever after reading?
I read an interview with the Christian hiphop artist Lecrae at the time, in which he expressed concern for Kendrick as a Christian. This made me wild. It highlighted for me the journey I had been on since childhood … the idea that there is a right (‘Christian’) way to be an artist, as opposed to being an artist who is human first and foremost, and whose commitment is to speak on behalf of the rest of us, to give us a voice, to help us with words, to guide us on our journey. This is what the great writers and poets do for us, in the same way that the Psalmists did for their community. They pen laments for those who do not know how to lament. They rejoice on our behalf. They mourn on our behalf. I began to see two distinct pathways emerging for me as a writer: the Lecrae way, and the Kendrick way. One, the way of Christian ideology, and therefore NOT art; the second, the artistic path, the narrow path, but one that to me at least was far more human, and far more real.
I chose to follow Kendrick. And even now, when I write, I see the peak of his best work in the far distance, and that’s the summit I aim for.
I’ve written a lot in recent years. Perhaps the most exciting development for me has been the freedom to not be afraid of words — any words. To use whatever word I have at my disposal to convey the complex emotions that I have been given the freedom to feel, to reflect on, and to portray — whether those words are offensive to people or not. I do this in the full knowledge that by using certain words, I will, once again, be cut off, or dismissed, or questioned, or have my faith mocked. I know this because it still happens. It doesn’t matter how much I say or write that people think is ‘good’, if I use certain words I am suddenly not worth listening to.
Well, so be it.
Having confronted the man that I am … having come to the foot of the cross and seen there not some glowing, heavenly alien creature, but the crucified man of Holbein’s painting … and come to terms with what that image says about me and about us … I find myself finally, at the age of (somewhere over 45) … unafraid. Beholden to no one, relatively free of the need to kowtow in order to make a quid, and more than that … positively willing to go into the dark recesses of the human soul in order to ply my trade on behalf of others.
The message is this: I’m not your utility. I’m not your theologian. I’m not your puppet. What I write is my free expression. The ideas in my head are mine. The palettes from which I paint are ones I have mixed myself over years and years, through experiences no one else had but me. Whatever I can use to help others find a voice, I will do so without fear or favour.
Ironically, I actually think THAT makes me a Christian writer.