Watching the party through the window

This is the first post of my new newsletter on Substack. Please check it out here.

For a long time, the story I’ve told most often to define who I am — or who I think I am — is the account of a cliff collapse in the southwest of Western Australia, back when I was a newspaper editor in 1996, in which nine people were killed. I thought about telling it again, as a way of introducing this new project, because the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve realised this newsletter’s beginnings were forming on that fateful afternoon when I stood on a beach and watched as the bodies were recovered from beneath the rocks and sand.

The Gracetown cliff collapse killed nine people, including four children. Picture: EMA/Geoscience Australia

That was the day I realised I’d lost the faith I’d grown up with.

I say I was about to tell it again, because as I began, a familiar feeling of guilt, if not self-loathing, arose, so I stopped. The feeling, rather than the story itself, required some exploration this time around. Why guilt? Why self-loathing? And what did those feelings have to do with Burning Belly?

On one level, the process of telling and retelling the story of a tragic event, real though the event was, and, yes, something to which I was an eyewitness, begins to feel contrived, like a tired old conversion story that an itinerant preacher recites without even thinking about it. It’s like my experience of watching U2 in recent years. The music sounds great, the show is still spectacular, but what in 1983 felt like passion and purpose, a mission, even a movement of the Spirit, now feels like a pantomime, as they’ve become a parody of themselves.

Have I constructed a parody of my own traumatic experience?

The more I thought about it, the more I realised the self-loathing comes from an even deeper place. It’s not the awareness that I’m detached from the telling of the story that’s bothering me, it’s the realisation that I was always detached, even from the event itself, and that the utilisation of an event that I was separate from, for my own ongoing narrative (or marketing etc), is what I find particularly loathsome. The realisation that it was never my story to tell. It was not my tragedy. I was a member of the community, sure, and I was there on the beach watching the events unfold like others, but I wasn’t invested in that community like other people. The tragedy didn’t mean the same to me as it did for those who had children, friends, colleagues they had worked with for years, lost beneath the cliff fall. I was there as a journalist, someone whose very presence is to stand apart and report — “objectively” — to describe moments from a distance.

This dissonance — being part but also apart — results in a type of trauma response that is peculiar to people like journalists, who witness terrible things but are not afforded the privilege of feeling or grieving (or celebrating, if the event is positive) the way that other people are. It’s like watching the most profound events of your life as someone always on the outside of them, like the older brother at the end of the Prodigal Son story, watching the welcome home party through the window. Always the observer, never the reveller. Close enough to a story to feel the pain of it — and this is the nub of it — but never close enough to be overwhelmed by it, in much the same way that C.S. Lewis describes his incongruent encounter with beauty in The Weight of Glory. As something he longs to participate in, but which remains allusively out of his reach, both in terms of distance (he’s too far away from it) and time (the moment is too fleeting).

C.S. Lewis. Picture: Britannica

The result is that I have this story that has shaped a large part of my life, but which isn’t even my story to tell. I’m stuck in the gap between being fundamentally shaped by something, but it’s something to which I have no authentic emotional connection. Living with that generates a unique kind of pain; it’s the cause of perpetual isolation and loneliness, a core aspect of who I am that I suspect is never fully understood or appreciated by anyone near to me (or distant from me, more to the point).

But why write about this here, in this first post of a new project?

Because this dissonance is the main driver behind this newsletter. That’s what I realise as I began to write this, some weeks ago. Not the dissonance of my own story, necessarily, but the parallel dissonance experienced by every person of faith who feels they are part of a story (the story of God, the story of the Gospel, or the church) that isn’t theirs to tell, and the subsequent feeling of self-loathing that arises when they try to find meaning and identity in a story they suspect they are merely observing from a distance. My premise is this: that people of Christian faith (and perhaps other faiths) who have lost their way, or become dry, or have woken up realising that the story that once felt so real and important to them has become just a faint memory, constantly battle the feeling that they are outside, isolated, the Prodigal’s older brother and Lewis’s agonised grappler after beauty, close enough to see the flame but too far away to be warmed by it. And that in that place they experience unexplained feelings of loneliness, or deep confusion about who they are, disconcerting frustration over their own incapacity to reconcile how the story makes them feel with how they think it should make them feel. I’m talking about burnt out or too busy pastors, and “post-evangelicals”, and people who have found success and meaning in work or family or creative endeavours, but have never quite felt the same about faith, the one area they think they should feel most passionately about.

Bono on stage with U2 during the 360 degree Tour at Mt Smart Stadium in 2010. Picture: NZ Herald

This is a newsletter for them. For us.

In Burning Belly: The text is fire, my goal is to reach some sense of reconciliation, between the story and my lived experience, and to help others experience the same. My working theory is that to find any reconciliation at all, I need to go back to the source of the story rather than rely on a parody of it), which is the text itself. There’s only one place where the story is told, and that’s the pages of the Bible. And the fact that even mentioning the Bible turns you off right now, points to what I’ve said above about how distant from the story you (we) have become. If that’s how you feel, I’ll say again that you’re preaching to the choir here.

I’m fortunate in this endeavour that despite everything else (all the bad stuff) I’ve experienced in the church or in theological education or in a family steeped in a conservative faith tradition, I still have a very high regard for the text — and that’s because whenever I go to work on it, it proves itself worthy of regard every single time. It’s like reading Dickens and discovering in the text itself the reason he’s held up as the greatest ever writer. The word demonstrates its own worth: Ah, this is why Sam Seaborn in The West Wing said Dickens was his favourite writer. In the case of the Bible, the text, as I hope you come to see if you journey with me long enough, is glorious. It’s disruptive. It challenges the ideologies we bring to it. It’s clever. It’s subversive. It’s poetic. And, most importantly, it’s alive.

The text is fire.

Rob Lowe as Sam Seaborn. Picture: Getty

So, here’s what’s going to happen in the Substack version of Burning Belly (there’s a different Burning Belly here, also by me). I’m going to tackle the text in 10-week “seasons” … 10 weeks on Colossians, for example … using my own interpretive (hermeneutical) framework of faith, hope and love that I began to develop as a theological lecturer a decade ago.

On Mondays, I’ll be unpacking sections of the text with some grunty (hopefully) exegesis — structural analysis, narrative analysis, etc, drawing from the full gamut of critical tools, but in a way that should be enjoyable to read. The goal is to tell the story in a fresh way.

On Wednesdays, I’ll build on that exegesis to reflect on something from the culture … a song, a record, a movie, a scene in a TV show … to bridge the gap between the text and the world that we live in.

And on Fridays, we’ll talk about the really confronting stuff that the text urges us to face … the relational stuff, love, sex, friendships, broken relationships.

To summarise …

Mondays … Burning Belly: The text is fire

Wednesdays … Burning Belly: Window in the skies

Fridays … Burning Belly: Let’s talk about love

Initially, this content goes out free of charge, so everyone gets a taste and is able to decide if they want to come along for the ride. Within a month or so, some of the more juicy content will be available to paid subscribers only. There’ll still be plenty of free stuff too.

Along the way, whether you’re a paid subscriber or not, we’ll have discussion forums, podcasts, and some other fun giveaways, events, and opportunities for personal Zoom sessions, as the Burning Belly community grows, and together we see a theology for life begin to bloom, nourished by the text itself.

I’d love for you to be a part of it.


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