Looking after the Aussie soul - have Christians met the challenge?

Historians report on how we are doing

Spoiler alert: Towards the back of Attending to the National Soul (ATNS), authors Robert Linder and Stuart Piggin write that there are three strands of evangelical Christianity in Australia. One is represented and led by Peter and Phillip Jensen (conservative evangelical leaders of the Sydney Anglicans), another by Brian Houston for Pentecostalism, and one with Tim Costello heading a progressive branch.

As leader of one such branch, Tim Costello launched ATNS, which is the history of evangelicalism from 1914-2014, at Sydney’s St Stephens Uniting Church this week. He commented on reading the page about the three strands: “It was a shock – I had not realised I had been leading a tribe.” He quotes from the book: “A house divided against itself cannot stand, but ironically the three houses which replaced the single house of the historic evangelical movement , may be stronger collectively than the one it replaced… In spite of the strong convictions of these leaders, the dramatic story of their co-existence is more one of convergence than divergence.” As a possible example of this thesis the progressive Costello was joined at the launch by current leaders of the conservative branch, Sydney Anglican Archbishop Glenn Davies and the Presbyterian Moderator-General (national leader) Peter Barnes.

It only takes reading a single page to realise that this book is the result of years, even decades of detailed research by two dedicated historians.

Costello describes ATNS as “an absolute delight to read. To me it is a very personal book. Although it has lots of pages and many footnotes I read every word.”

It only takes reading a single page to realise that this book is the result of years, even decades of detailed research by two dedicated historians. You will find the origin stories of whatever branch of evangelical Christianity you might belong to – and all the others.  You will gain renewed respect for the labour of those who nurtured the movement you are in. Then curious, you will trace the path of the other tribes.

“I was reintroduced in reading this book to my family tribe,to my evangelical family tribe, and to my national tribe.” Costello said. He explained that his wife’s family, the Kitchens, feature in the book – because Linder and Piggin could not have covered the Melbourne Baptist tribe without mentioning them – and Costello reels off a series of names: Will Renshaw, Geoff Bingham, C. H. Nash, Howard Guinness among others.

“I remember my dad kneeling and praying with many of these people,” he says.

“My kids are interested in other names, some that I have worked with. Names like Athol Gill of the Bunyip, John Smith, Brian Houston.”

There is naturally a slight Melbourne tilt to Costello’s  names, but one of the glories of this book is that the thorough research will turn up local heroes from right across the nation.

Speaking to the book’s title Costello explains that the evangelical care for the national soul is described as ‘dynamic altruism’, and stepping outside of Australian history for a moment cites William Wilberforce as a prime example of this.

Costello pointed out that the book begins with the story of Mary Bennett, missionary and determined campaigner for  Indigenous rights. Her appeal for the rights of Aboriginal women is decided by ATNS as “couched in terms which reveals the debt feminism owes to the Bible.”

“That journey is still with us as we attend the national souls” Costello said. At the end of the book the authors write “The biggest gap between evangelical vision and its practical outworking has always been in ministry to Indigenous Australians… Failure.. must be understood as resulting from too little love, knowledge and understanding.”

Describing Stuart Piggin as her “unofficial mentor,” historian and ABC broadcaster Meredith Lake recounted that “reading this book in draft form and commenting on it was one of the best gigs I had as a young historian doing contract work.”

Referring to the detailed research behind ATNS, she added “This sort of book can only be done over decades, it can not be done in months or years.”

Stuart Piggin in turn described a happy result from the book’s long incubation. A flotilla of scholarship formed from many doctoral theses of students supervised or mentored by Linder and Piggin enriched the story. Like Costello, Piggin reeled off a list of heroes. Geoffrey Bingham “who receives a lot of attention in the book ” as a Changi POW and later a preacher and spreader of revival, Steve Lawrence who experienced both living in a Christian commune on $5 a week, and founding the Workventures company with 200 staff, and Les Murray, Australia’s poet laureate.

Read the book and devise your own list.

Piggin and Linder’s  first volume – of a book that was originally meant as a single volume – The Fountain of Prosperity – won the Australian Christian Book of the Year for 2019. This new volume will provide hot competition for the 2020 award.

Attending to the National Soul: Evangelical Christians in Australian History 1914-2014

Stuart Piggin and Robert D. Linder, Monash University Publishing $49.99

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