The Sacred Fragility of Life: Tim Winton, Faith and Fundamentalism

Simon Smart reflects on the life - and faith - of one of Australia's most beloved writers.

I once had a fight with my wife over a Tim Winton book. Well, not really a fight, but let’s say, a spirited disagreement.

We had both just finished reading Breath and she was more than a little annoyed at her erstwhile literary hero Winton, for what she perceived to be his overly dark and hopeless portrayal of Australian maleness.

In her mind, a cavalcade of brooding, barely articulate characters – emotionally stilted, self-destructive, especially in risk-taking and sexual (mis)adventures – might be accurate but, “C’mon!” she groaned, “Give us something to hold on to!”

I on the other hand felt that despite all that, Winton looked for, and was able to convey, redemptive elements in his characters that weren’t obvious or triumphant or even especially impressive. But they weren’t nothing. They were, you might say, satisfactory.

That might not be enough for some readers, but it reflects something of Winton’s craft that can’t be denied. He creates fictitious worlds that are relentlessly embedded in real life with all its chaos and messiness and human fallibility. It’s raw and recognisable. Hilariously funny and yet chaotic and sometimes cruel.

And while it’s a perilous task to try to dig too deeply into an author’s experience in order to try to explain their fiction, Winton’s latest book The Boy Behind the Curtain offers, for such a private person, surprisingly forthcoming details of the shaping influences on his life and his work. A collection of essays, articles, speeches, this might be as close as we are likely to get to memoir for Winton.

The chaos of accidents has defined Tim Winton’s life. Various incidents of motor vehicle carnage have created markers of destabilising trauma that have had profound effects on him and the stories that have flowed from his pen.

When he was very young his father, a motorcycle cop, was nearly killed and left a shell of his former self in a collision with an errant driver. Later Winton found himself hurtling through a brick wall as an 18-year-old passenger of a mate’s car and spent months recovering from major concussion and convulsions. He came home “weak and doddery as a crone” and feeling like a ghost in his own body. And strangely, he has been unlucky enough to be on the scene and obliged to provide help to victims of some horrific motor accidents.

All of this left even the very young Winton with a keen sense that, despite the love and security of a close family and happy childhood, none of us is safe. “But now I knew that we were not, and never really would be, out of the woods”, he writes. “Everything you know and see is fragile, temporary, and if there’s any constant in life it’s contingency.”

Yet out of the destructiveness of that roadside bedlam, and destabilising anxiety, emerged creativity that fed so many of the stories we have come to love. Emerging from the funk of his own accident Winton felt a new compulsion to take seriously his ambition to be a writer. Winton and his readers can rightly feel grateful for that, if not the events that spurred him on. “Without strife the cop and the novelist have nothing to work with,” he writes with characteristic rueful irony.

Violence, or its potential, is always trembling just below the surface in Winton’s writing. And there is something carnal and fleshly in so many of his characters and descriptions – the pungent smell of real life and death and the precarious dance between the two.

The havoc of vehicular carnage was formative in other ways too. When his father was brought home a ruined invalid, living in bed, “obediently swallowing the pills that would chew the holes in his guts,” the mysterious kindness of a complete stranger who turned up from the local church “unannounced and uninvited” had a lasting impact. Day after day that man came to help bathe Winton Snr – a strangely sacrificial gift that brought about an unlikely “Turning” in the Winton household. Following this “act of grace” Winton’s Dad and Mum became devout and lifelong Christians.

Winton observed a “new energy and purpose” in his parents as he and his siblings found themselves embedded in what would become a formative church community. The chapter “Twice on Sundays” recounts his experiences growing up in a fundamentalist, cossetted environment. And it is very funny. “We were unaccountably and unreasonably churchy”, he writes. “We were odd bods, and knew it. Still, our neighbours, who were typically squeamish about God-botherers, were mostly quite tolerant. They had pegged us as weirdos, but the persecution we’d been trained to expect never seemed to materialize.”

The Wintons would gather local kids from the neighbourhood on Sunday mornings and load them into the family station wagon for their weekly dose of spiritual medicine. Not all the children were enthusiastic participants but as Winton recounts, “their hungover parents were grateful to have them out of the house for an hour, and the knowledge that my old man was a cop seemed to engender a rare compliance amongst these luckless junior heathens”.

The sermon, the centrepiece of any Sunday, was no comforting homily but a “verbal reaming, a coach’s spray, a physical and mental ordeal” you needed to survive for your own good. Sundays were an endurance test for Winton marked by afternoon visitation to relatives distant and close, followed by a further church service at night. Winton jokes that he went to school on Monday for a breather!

And yet …

For Winton this was also the only theatre he knew as various preachers clawed the air, whispered and cajoled, crooned or wept. He says this pious background was his introduction to politics, high language and music. He says it gave him an appreciation of story, of the beauty and power of language and the allure and profundity of metaphor.

These days “Christianity with its sleeves rolled up” is the only version he’s interested in.

In a sense, even in his late teens, Winton had outgrown the particular church culture of his childhood. A young mind as enquiring and agile as his was unlikely to settle for simplistic answers to deep questions, but by his own admission he remains compelled by the wonder and mystery of grace that is so central to Christian belief.

That belief never left him, and he clearly has deep affection for the people of his devout childhood and what they gave him. He witnessed a group of working class people embedded in a community that gave them coherence and communal spirit enabling them to live lives of meaning and depth. Of his own parents he writes that their conversion was the making of them, raising their sights beyond “suburban self-interest” towards life and love.

The Boy Behind the Curtain opens with a quote from a Les Murray poem, “Poetry and Religion”, and it nicely captures Winton’s attitude to writing and to faith.

Nothing’s said till it’s dreamed out in words
And nothing’s true that figures in words only.

Whatever taxonomy you might be tempted to use to dissect the faith of Winton, one thing is abundantly clear: language is important to him but he’s interested in more than words. Despite a youthful obsession with correct theology, these days “Christianity with its sleeves rolled up” is the only version he’s interested in.

And while he would reject any such suggestion outright, it’s not hard to detect in Winton the man the lasting influence of some of the best aspects of Christian belief and practice. Winton railed against a noxious theology present in his youth that considered this world to be “not our home” and therefore inconsequential. His love for and action on behalf of the natural world, particularly fragile and vulnerable gems like Ningaloo Reef (“The Battle for Ningaloo Reef”) for which Winton became a dedicated activist, stem from a sense that the precious and frequently abused environment we inhabit is a gift of the Creator and worth protecting. Christians and environmentalists are rarely thought of as easy bedfellows but they ought to hold much in common according to Winton.

In an age so dominated by a hard materialism Winton stands out as someone who believes the material aspects of life are bound up in the spiritual. Which means questions of justice have an eternal ring to them. He takes on the persona of the raging prophet in his Palm Sunday Speech (“Stones for Bread”) that picks up on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount to castigate modern Australia for its treatment of asylum seekers. “Something is festering in the heart of our community, something shameful and rotten”, he warns. “But to live as hostages to our lowest fears we must surrender things that are sacred: our human decency, our morality, our self-respect, our inner peace.” Winton continues to have faith in our better instincts and it is to these that he appeals.

Winton is the darling of the Australian literary scene. He’s enormously successful. He could spend his life being wined and dined and feted in the media and by the most influential and powerful in the land. But he is astonishingly unaffected by it all. His blue-collar background combined with a childhood faith community that, if nothing else, taught him to value the virtue of humility, meant he was never going to “get ahead of himself”.

Intensely private, utterly unpretentious, Winton is more likely to be found in a fishing boat with old mates or bobbing in an isolated surf spot on his beloved Western Australia coastline than at anything resembling a red carpet event. When he has to, he turns up to promotional events for his books, and you get the feeling that putting on shoes is his one concession to dressing up for the occasion. He is truly uninterested in celebrity and in this narcissistic age such restraint is rare and immensely attractive.

For those hoping to make sense of the writer, The Boy Behind the Curtain provides some illuminating clues and should be considered essential reading. But even for those who haven’t been captivated by the fiction of the famous West Australian, this collection offers much in the way of hard-won wisdom, beautiful nostalgic reflection, self-deprecating humour, and, in places, a penetrating critique of modern culture. As Winton enters his late middle age (he’s a grandfather now) he appears more willing to speak out. We would do well to listen.

This article first appeared at ABC Religion & Ethics.

Simon Smart is the Director of the Centre for Public Christianity.


Belonging and sacrifice in Tim Winton’s Eyrie

There is no cheap grace or easy moral confidence in Tim Winton’s Eyrie