do you speak Australian?

A couple of weeks ago, Natalie and I had a terrific conversation with some friends that’s been percolating away in the back of my brain ever since.

One thing we talked about was the idea of the Australian heart language.

‘Heart language’ is a concept that Bible translators and missionaries would be familiar with. It’s traditionally carved out in opposition to the trade language. It’s like the Kriol into which the Bible was finally translated in 2007 so that indigenous Australians could encounter God’s Word in a more direct and meaningful way.

But I’ve been wondering whether the concept’s got wider application to helping us promote Jesus in contemporary Australia. Basically, I’m not sure we’re hitting the mark when it comes to presenting the good news in terms that connect deeply and directly with people.

Let me give a personal example. A few years ago I read North American novelist Don Delillo’s book Falling Man, which is set in New York City in the wake of 9/11. It contains explicit, extensive discussion of the problem belief in God in the face of such large-scale suffering. It’s language and register is very close to what you’d find in articles and online. But it left me feeling cold.

In contrast, a novel like Tim Winton’s Dirt Music resonated much more powerfully with me as it handled similar issues. It just seemed to speak much more directly to my heart.

Reflecting on this sort of experience has got me thinking about whether I speak a language other than that in which most Australians think and feel as I seek to communicate the good news of what God has done in Jesus. I’ve started asking myself: Are the words, images and stories that I typically reach for when speaking of Jesus recognisable? Or are they too ‘high culture’ — or, worse, too evangelical Christian sub-culture?

What I’d love from you are suggestions about novels, TV-shows, radio-programmes — anything really — that you reckon speak the Australian heart language? I urgently want to tap into them so that I can get better at promoting Jesus to the people I know!

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10 comments

  1. This is a great idea to think through – thanks Chris.

    I’m thinking that Australia is probably too disparate for a single heart language. As an example, I completely fail to identify with Australia fiction writers who prefer coastal settings. My Australia is very definitely an inland one. I like Judith Wright and Gwen Harwood. I probably get the Canadian bush mentality of Atwood better than I can understand Drewe. I need landscapes with greys and blues and dislike green ones.

    If you were looking for imagery and stories that would speak to me they would need to involve mountains, rivers, horizons and dryness and avoid surfing and sand at all costs! I did think that “Seachange” still managed to speak my language though.

    What do think about a coastal/inland (or wet/dry) divide?

    1. Wow! Yeah, that’s brilliant Heather. When you said ‘Australia is probably too disparate for a single heart language’ (which I totally agree with), I was expecting you to go down the cultural diversity route. But your suggestion about a coastal v inland divide is really intriguing.

      I wonder too about city v bush. Although, it’s probably too cliched and doesn’t square with the complexity of most people’s concrete or ‘imaginary’ experience of Australia. For instance, I’m nothing if not a city boy. And yet the craggy red-and-brown-and-khaki-ness of Kings Canyon (say) is something thoroughly Australian that I identify with far more than I do with Sydney’s leafy North Shore where I grew up.

  2. When Mark Driscoll visited Moore College back in ’08 (was it ’08?) he gave his personal example of watching TV relentlessly, as a good thing to do. It’s a counter-intuitive example because I know that I’ve wasted far too many hours doing just this. But I think Driscoll’s point was that the special ‘language’ of pop culture is spoken on TV and we should learn it and bring the Truth to bear upon it. I suppose the recommendation is then to watch critically and thoughtfully, rather than wasteful mindless watching that has characterised my TV consumption in the past.

    1. You’re probably onto something. (A friend recently suggested to me that the interweb has ensured that TV is only watched by people over 30 these days. But I’m yet to see the stats on this.)

      What’s more, I suspect watching will only take you so far. It’s also knowing how Australian people are responding to and discussing Masterchef, for example, during their coffee break the next day, right?

  3. I recently found a book on my hometown (Blue Mountains) called the street wise. It was a bunch of photos and short biographies of people in the public eye and imagination, from the well known homeless to the mayor. I would recommend it to anyone trying to grasp the heart language of that place. Particularly interesting were the testimonies of conversion to Jesus.They were little short stories of Jesus coming to people where they were at and of struggling to be faithful in that context. We need to know the small old stories of particular places, but also for people to know our stories, our background, our history, our struggles. Part of the problem I see is that we try to speak the good news of Jesus FROM nowhere, as though that will make it available to all.

  4. oh, also, Les Murray. Les communicates the Australian heart language pretty well, he doesn’t do too bad with the gospel either.
    His epic ‘Freddy Neptune’ is fantastic

    1. Sweet. Thanks, Mike. There really is an interesting interplay between the big, shared stories/experiences by which we identify ourselves as Australian (e.g., Galipoli or, more controversially, American pop culture) and those more private — ie. less readily published and shared — ‘small old stories of particular places’ and times, isn’t there?

  5. yeah, and like the next post, I don’t know that those stories are always told.

    If you came into say, the mountains as a newcomer, you wouldn’t know that ‘x’ was driving a car a decade ago when it crashed and killed 4 mates, or that ‘y’ used to be an internationally renowned artist, or that ‘z’ was adopted by missionaries, still has faith but is wary of thechurch

    And when you stand up to present the gospel in a new place, as a nice middle class middle age person, to nice middle class, middle age people, they don’t know you as that guy they used to get drunk with and push over cows, or who went out of their way to help out a friend, or who screwed up a friendship and had to work out how to forgive each other.
    These secrets are the heart language, and they accrue over generations. If we are continually mobile, as christians and especially as christian leaders, we never know them, or at least, people think we dont know them.

    These little stories are the heart of Winton and Murray’s appeal, not their ‘Aussiness’ or the epic landscape.

    1. I reckon you’re right about this being what makes Winton and Murray so appealing, Mike. Quirkily enough, I personally got hooked on Winton by reading The Riders. I devoured in a single session — and it’s noticeably free from epic Australian landscapes, etc! (Although, maybe there’s that whole Coming To Own Your National Identity In A Fresh Way While Travelling Overseas thing going on under the surface? I’m not sure.)

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