I finished Tim Winton’s 1986 novel That Eye, The Sky this morning. Last year I noted that Tim Winton’s later novels (The Riders onwards) were not explicit enough in their treatment of faith to be the kind of ‘writing for the kingdom’ that Tom Wright proposes. I cautiously added that I hadn’t read his earlier work; That Eye, The Sky is precisely an attempt to ‘write for the kingdom’.
Told through the eyes of twelve year old Ort, it is the story of a family in a WA town living in the aftermath of an accident which leaves Ort’s father, Sam, unable to talk or communicate. A stranger, Henry, knocks on their door and offers to take care of Sam, bathing him. (Tim Winton has talked of a similar experience in his life, when his father had an accident and a Christian came each day to bathe him.) Henry also explains the gospel to the family and Ort and his mother accept the good news, are baptised in the dam and start eating the Lord’s Supper – sherry and bread – with each meal.
[Spoiler alert] I think any good novelist would have to be something of an outsider to the church, and this comes through in what happens subsequently. For Ort and his mother to become Christians, start going to their local Bible-believing church and live happily ever after, it would have to be one of those inspirational fictions published by Harvest House.
Instead, they visit the local fundamentalist church, an Australian flag on the wall, where all the women wear hats with fruit and the like on them. The preacher shouts at them from Revelation and Ort’s mother yells back that ‘We’re not animals!’ before running out. Later they try a Catholic church, but things don’t turn out perfectly there either.
The final disappointment with Christianity comes when Henry runs off with Ort’s teenage sister.
Alas, if anything, Winton’s novel proves to me how difficult it is to write about Christianity. I felt embarrassed, for some reason, reading the sections about faith. Maybe embarrassed for how good-naturedly Ort takes on faith, without any understanding of the obstacles and disappointments ahead of him.
Or maybe it’s that I felt myself squirming with Winton, knowing the impossible task he was undertaking – making the literary fiction reader feel superior enough to this ‘born again’ religion stuff, but trying to be faithful to evangelical Christianity at the same time – while knowing that evangelical Christianity wouldn’t embrace the book because it was too “weird”, or too highbrow or too rude.