It’s not a very popular idea these days, but the question of the formation of character is still a critical question for educators in many fields, and one that comes to mind as one reads Tim Winton’s The Boy Behind the Curtain. What influences, experiences and disciplines made him to be the person he is and thus the writer he is? There can be no question his parents were a very positive influence and he speaks affirming of them, as also of some of his relatives. It’s interesting also to read of his reflections on the church, a small sect-like group as he describes it, which profoundly shaped his life after his parents experienced Christian conversion when young Tim was six years of age. It is not only in the chapter ‘Twice on Sundays’ that he describes these influences—and again one can see that some of these elements have found their way into his novels, for instance in That Eye the Sky.
I want to identify several of the elements in Winton’s account, recognizing of course that I am being selective. He describes the local church as a ‘bare-knuckles, no-frills affair’, with a strong suspicion of clerical authority. This small Church of Christ group was nonetheless very strongly motivated to teach and nurture young people, and Winton records specific instances of the caring and tolerant responses of older members to his enquiring mind.
In contrast to a deeply materialistic and (as Winton describes it) fairly shallow culture—clinging to the shores of our continent, unwilling to go into the centre—he says that from church life he was introduced to ‘conscious living’. By this he means an examined life: thinking about what life is really about and what we must do. ‘I’d be surprised if anyone in my boyhood church had read even a page of Tolstoy, but it seems to me that the question that ate at him so late in his life was the central issue for us, too. What then must we do?’ (p.100).
Winton says that it is thanks to his ‘churchly upbringing’ that he began to learn something of civil life, or we might say ethical existence. He was taught to think not only of himself, but instead to reach beyond ‘tribalism’ to cultivate a more disinterested and reflective response to situations and others. With deep irony he observes that these Christian teachings are liberating and civilizing, aspects not often identified in evangelical fundamentalism. It is remarkable how positively Winton is able to speak of this group. While so much else in the society around him was changing dramatically, and in his view in retrospect much of it not for the better, in church life there was ‘a coherence and communal spirit unmatched elsewhere’.
Though he has moved on to a different stream of Christian community, more liturgical in its worship and with some different theological emphases, Winton continues to speak with deep appreciation of his Christian formation. It is what used to be called ‘the making of a man or woman’. I guess most significant here is his appreciation of the importance of narrative:
It was in church that I learnt how perilously faith depends upon story, for without narrative there is only theological assertion, which is, in effect inert cargo. (p.106)
In that same passage, he says that his church formation taught him ‘the beauty and power of language’. We can all be very grateful for that!
Another vital aspect of his early experience was relationship. I have mentioned already that elders in the church community saw it as their business to be concerned about others and what they called ‘their walk’, meaning their ongoing relationship with God. So Tim Winton was able to talk with and question these leaders, as they too challenged and encouraged him. He recounts an amusing story of when, at six years of age, he asked an elder about the size of his soul. That the man took his question seriously and tried to find a way to answer the boy continues to impress Winton.
But the community began to change as it became increasingly threatened by society, and eventually Winton was deeply unhappy with it, especially with its general repudiation of embodied human life and the created order, which was being continually destroyed in what was called ‘development’. After engaging with other more ‘progressive’ Christian groups, he came to what he calls ‘a theological stand-still’. Today he recognizes that there is no one formulation or set of ideas that has ‘the’ right perspective. Rather:
Every expression is partial, contingent, as if written in sand. … At best it’s poetic, for any discussion of the divine rests on metaphor, but what a peculiar task it is to try to describe silence. Even the grandest poetic language is hard-pressed to try to contain or carry an intimation of grace. (p.116)
So this reflection ends with mystery. Tim Winton continues to describe himself as a ‘churchgoer’, but does not easily fit into any of the standard forms. Who does?
What I find so encouraging in these reflections is his gracious appreciation of the good intentions of people with whom he has parted ways, his openness to continued growth and his deep affirmation of the reality of life, a gift to be enjoyed. Clearly blessed with health and bodily strength, he has travelled this land, camping, walking, surfing—and in it all has recognized the presence of the creator. His spiritual formation has reached out to embrace the presence of the Holy in all things.