The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Wednesday, December 27, 2017


Turtle time to open minds

Franklin carries distinction.  Two US Presidents were so labeled, Pierce and Roosevelt after the surname of founding father Benjamin.

Also a school-going turtle who ‘could count by twos and tie his shoes’, the star turn in a series of Canadian children’s books and a TV series.

In East Java there’s the multi-talented artist and musician Johannes Aziz Suprianto.  Rings no bells?  Try Aziz Franklin.

“I’ve long liked turtles because they’re independent, inquisitive, always go forward and carry their home,” he said. “So my puppet tells about the importance of developing a sense of curiosity about the world.

“That’s Franklin; on the stage he talks to me and I respond because I’m also Franklin.”

The Malang-based teacher and entertainer is a master of the sapeh or sape, a traditional lute from Kalimantan, which he finds more satisfying than the guitar he played till three years ago.

Along with green Franklin, the unusual flat-bed sapeh captures kids’ attention as the two Franklins subtly urge them to do well, stay the distance and beat down the barriers.

“What will you do when you grow up?” he asks around 50 elementary school children at a home-grown kampong arts festival while parents look on.

As the youngsters are scratching for answers which might suit Mom and Pop, Franklin throws in suggestions:  “Who’s going the be a doctor? Or a scientist?  Hands up those who’ll be teachers.  And who’ll be a pilot?”

The idea is to aim high and not clip the wings of the riverbank littlies where their adult role models are largely day laborers and snack sellers.  Franklin reminds them to open books; in this community some of the far-sighted leaders have set up a small library and reading room.

But without the money for private colleges they’ll still have to rise above the schooling on hand.  Independent research shows that although attendance is up quality is not.

Every three years Indonesia participates in the OECD Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).  The latest report tested 540,000 students from 72 countries. Although there have been some improvements - particularly among girls - Indonesia ranks 62, far behind most of its neighbors, including Vietnam.

Commenting on the findings in the on-line journal The Conversation Dr Arnaldo Pellini at London’s Overseas Development Institute said inequality and school performance remain an issue in Indonesia: 

The percentage of low performers in science among disadvantaged students is among the highest globally.’  Although Indonesia spends 20 per cent of its budget on education it bumps along the bottom ten nations in reading, science and maths. Singapore tops all; educationists say this is because the country invests in teaching.

“We, the people, and not just the parents must work to improve schooling,” said Franklin, 51.  “That means using every means possible and not just sticking to old techniques.

“In the Soeharto era we knew little about world events because information was tightly controlled.  So I had to work it out myself, seeking secret sellers of illegally printed or second-hand books by overseas and local authors.  

“I found writers like Pramoedya Ananta Toer and Muchtar Lubis which were banned.”

After training as a teacher Franklin joined Teater Keliling (wandering theater) founded in 1974 by director Rudolf Puspa to take drama to ordinary people beyond Jakarta.

Performances were licensed and restricted, and scripts checked.  Apart from local works by authors like the late dissenting poet and dramatist Rendra (Willibrordus Surendra Broto Rendra who died in 2009), they also staged the anti-establishment theater of Romanian-French playwright Eugene Ionesco.
“We were followed by Intel (intelligence agents) and questioned about our work,” Franklin said. “We always had to be careful.  It was a frightening, exciting and challenging time, learning parts in buses and trains, a new town every night or so, not knowing how the authorities would react.  

“Now we have freedom. The problems today are fake news and getting youngsters to realize their potential.”   

The theater group toured several countries, including Pakistan, Thailand, Malaysia, Germany and France.

Among the books Franklin scavenged were the fairytales of the 19th century Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen.  The teacher found European yarns also had a place in Indonesia alongside the indigenous fables told by his grandmother to help him sleep “and inspired me to become a storyteller - though my talents come from God.” (He’s a Catholic.)

From this mix plus embellishments has come Franklin’s present repertoire. His skills, drawn from working with the other knockabout creatives in Teater Keliling include ventriloquism, magic, singing - even hypnotism.  

“I’m no longer interested in politics,” he said, though activism lurks in his reasoning: “Indonesia is a rich country, but the citizens are not rich.

“I want to help open their minds. I know what can be done because I’ve been overseas and worked with clever people.  There are many creatives in Malang, but if you want to be famous you have to go elsewhere.  

“Now anything is possible. But each individual has to make the effort themselves.  That’s Franklin’s message - strive to be the best.” The big green turtle smiles and nods vigorously.  So does his creator. The kids laugh and clap. Their spirits have been lifted, and perhaps their futures.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 27 December 2017)


Tuesday, December 26, 2017


Look back in wonder
Fifteen years ago this story was published in what was then the quarterly print magazine Inside Indonesia.
For some curious reason the title cropped up during a recent visit.  I'd kept the copy on a small disc which can no longer be read - but fortunately it survived on the Web.  So here it is:
The East Java Provincial Government, like most administrations world wide, is not above a little dissembling. You get it on the road into Surabaya where the official welcome signs note that Indonesia's second biggest city is 'Bersih dan Hijau' - Clean and Green.
The signs are best seen at first light. By 9 am smog blurs the image and attention is distracted by beggars and newspaper sellers who swarm around any slow-moving car. Which is just about any vehicle, for the traffic density is close to gridlock. Try not to breathe.
That's in the dry season: In the wet roads are flooded from door to door, so pavement, verge, drain and bitumen merge into a seamless black scum where floating objects best remain unscrutinised. Then Surabaya stalls as saturated engines short circuit.
And the green? Most obvious on bright coloured giant billboards offering sexual, sporting and social success for the tiny price of a pack of smokes. Real trees are as rare as a shark (sura) fighting a crocodile (buaya), the city's mythological origin.
The authorities claim Surabaya has a Centre. If there is a focal point it has to be Tunjungan Plaza, a garish multi-storey department store full of over-priced goods and costly American fast-food shops. Here the poor peer, the middle class preen, and salesgirls professionally ignore customers with cash.
For Surabaya has not been planned, or if that claim is denied, the planners were corrupt, inept, or asleep. Probably all three.
Like some sci-fi squid from outer space which feeds on city sewers, Surabaya is devouring Gresik up the coast, climbing into the hill town of Tretes, swallowing nearby Sidoarjo, to be stopped only by the Straits of Madura. But even then its plastic excreta can be found far offshore.
Who can tell where it all begins and ends, because it doesn't. Surabaya defies definitions and census-takers, but four to five million for the area around the port could be a reasonable guess, with 30 million more in the hinterland. Or maybe that's the other way around.
At least 20,000 are prostitutes, for among its many credentials this sweaty, grimy industrial megapolis seven degrees south of the equator is reputedly Southeast Asia's biggest brothel, with the accessories of disease and despair to match.
And yet...
Without doubt Surabaya is Scunge City.
And yet and yet.
Unlike Bali, Surabaya doesn't care whether you come, and unlike Jakarta it's indifferent to whether you go. The few tourists who find themselves in Surabaya wander bemused, clutching handbags and hands, restless eyes playing spot-the-mugger.
Relax: Even the thieves are indifferent.
Expat businessmen and government officials are not to be spotted in public, except at product launches. They're more at ease gliding between hotel and office behind the black windows of their chauffeur-driven Super Kijangs.
Ignore them: They only mix with their own kind, then sell themselves as experts on the culture and economy.
In a narrow trench alongside Tunjungan Plaza, crushed by a motorbike park, are the warungs where shopgirls on $60 a month and their boyfriends retreat from their air-conditioned glitzy workplace to eat well for less than one Australian dollar.
And so can you. Rip-offs are rare and gawking at Western intruders is subtle.
For although Surabaya is chaotic, grotesque, dirty, impossible to negotiate, crass in its Soviet-realism monuments, noteworthy for its lack of notable buildings, events and attractions, try finding any place more Javanese.
The language of the kampungs and the street is Javanese, not Bahasa Indonesia. Advertisements for cigarettes, mobile phones and dandruff-cures may be English in a pretence of refinement, but the world language is rare outside the campuses.
What you see is what you get. The indifference towards Westerners extends to the locals. This is not special treatment, it is the treatment. Surabaya is raw and honest. No 'morning price', no concessions and, best of all, no contempt.
The obsequiousness, sneers and arrogance, so much the part of the local response in other Asian cities towards white skinned creatures outside their environment, is seldom encountered in Surabaya. You are obviously a walking cash box, but the temptation to make a quick withdrawal is usually found only among a few taxi drivers late on a wet night.
Yet what you see is not what you get. The splendid Majapahit Hotel, reputedly the most expensive in Indonesia and a marvel of indulgence and beauty with a fine historic past, is hidden behind a drab fence which blends anonymously into a coarse streetscape of commercial sameness.
Likewise with Kampung Sasak. Even the locals have difficulty finding the entrance of this Arab quarter, which leads through a cramped street of traders to the ancient Ampel Mosque, founded by Sunan Ampel, one of the nine holy men who brought Islam to Java.
The mosque, in this densely packed centre of Middle Eastern commerce, always seems to be busy with the business of worship, unlike the landmark Agung Mosque near the toll road to Malang. This grand blue-domed and government-built celebration of Islam, with a Catholic church in its shadow as forced propaganda for tolerance, is as sterile and obvious as Ampel is potent and hidden.
There are hundreds of other nooks in Surabaya which reveal some of the complex and subtle nuances of this fourteenth century remnant of the Majapahit Kingdom. That they're absent from the guide books is no indicator of a desire for privacy; it's just that the government has a stereotyped view of foreigners and thinks visitors only want poolside drinks and American breakfasts.
When Surabaya was created, the deity which governs tourism blinked, and praise be for a marvellous escape from Mammon.
The best food is often found in the gloomiest, oil-lit warungs, original handicrafts in the drabbest shops, the finest dancers and singers in schools where the concrete is cancerous and the architecture indistinguishable from a public toilet.
East Java proclaims it is a Muslim State, but even the most pious will visit a paranormal in times of strife. Ghosts lurk in banyan trees, wayward spirits send lax students into trances, mystics are consulted by brokers who trade on the Net. At midnight, street people drift to a Chinese temple seeking a peep into the future. Islam is just the outer skin of an onion covering animism, Hinduism and other ancient mysteries.
Slim girls in gladwrap-tight jeans revealing navels, shoulders and their readership of Cosmopolitan, hold hands with friends covered from head to toe in the tradition of their grandmothers. Men smoke, drink and gamble, then pray.
To find the secret places and learn of the magics you need a special guide. Not a professional from a hotel - they'll only take you to KFC. The person you require will find you and will be insulted if you offer money, though a feed and help with English conversation will be appreciated.

How to meet such a marvel?

It's not that difficult. Wander the streets and markets alone, with an open mind, friendly face and polite gestures. Take your time. You'll be seen and watched. If you're sending the right signals someone is bound to find the courage to practise their English. Don't rush. Build an acquaintance - or walk away if the mood or person isn't right.
In a few days you'll have met a few of his or her friends, had a meal or two, maybe visited the family home, exchanged views and discovered differences. With luck you'll find more in common despite the Timor Sea of misunderstanding, language, religion, income, experience and lifestyle which separates us as neighbours. Then the smog starts to lift.
Since the British bombed the city in November 1945, Surabaya has been deceived and betrayed by successive governments in Jakarta, but its residents remain resilient, independent, stoic, Javanese.
For although Surabaya is rough and ugly, its people are genuine, keen to share, humble but proud. They apologise for the manifold faults of government, but retain hope for change. They hunger for knowledge. They thirst for understanding. Yet they are not ignorant or unsophisticated.
You may find wrinkled men sucking clove cigarettes who can debate philosophy having read the greats in Greek; young women studying John Donne and other metaphysical poets in the original yet destined to become secretaries; students who know more of Australian politics than the average Okker undergraduate. They hate KKN (corruption, collusion and nepotism) but know that without it they will surely miss the best jobs.
It's a humbling experience to continuously meet fluent self-taught English speakers when you're struggling with a language which is supposed to be easy, to discover the astonishing achievements of young people handicapped by lack of money, few books and a 1950-style education system.
Despite the universe-sized problems which beset this cumbersome and fumbling democracy, the next generation is largely incandescent with energy and determination to right the wrongs, all tempered with reality and an undercurrent of fear. Expect to be dazzled and confused. But never dismayed.
All this and more, as the tourist brochures like to say. Seek and ye will find. In Surabaya.
Duncan Graham ( is a Perth based journalist who can't get enough of East Java.
Inside Indonesia 69: Jan - Mar 2002

Saturday, December 23, 2017


Going with the flow       


As an event it was spectacular; as dance it swirled past the barriers of culture and language. As theatre it was emotional, the quality international.  

But few shared the moving experience. The location was the small Panji Museum set among paddy in Tumpang village, East Java; maybe only 150 in the audience.

The museum includes a replica of the 1,000-year old Candi Jolotundo, the royal bathing pool on sacred Mount Penanggungan about 100 km north west.  

Choreographer Matheus Wasi Bantolo arrived at Tumpang from Central Java just a few hours before he and 25 local and visiting dancers were to perform Panji plays at a local festival.

“At first I decided to stay on the stage,” he said. “Then I wondered how to use the foreground, to get closer to the audience.  I thought it might make the show more dramatic.”

Indeed.  Bantolo started his Kidung Kayungyun masked dance at the water’s edge then moved into the shallow pool fed by a mountain stream.

Bantolo said the Javanese title was difficult to translate but implied being “ensnared by personal feeling like love or revenge …I developed it from a contemporary mask performance we staged earlier in Singapore and Thailand.”

In an master stroke Bantolo scooped out a long fishing net on his left, then another from the right while singing and accompanied by a gamelan; it looked like a Biblical tableau of casting nets to feed the multitude. Even without flapping fish it was a powerful image.

The Panji Museum is being developed by Malang entrepreneur Dwi Cahyono, 51, (right)   
to promote Indonesian culture and history focusing on Central and East Java.  Displays start with an archaeological dig and lead through reality and myth to the present.  

Indonesians seldom queue outside museums so Cahyono has added a swimming pool and picnic ground only accessed through the artefact-filled auditorium. Visitors get shanghaied by history like air-travellers ambushed by duty-free shops while heading for the boarding gate.

Some of Cahyono’s ideas were gleaned during a 2016 tour of New Zealand.  This included the National Museum Te Papa, and director Peter Jackson’s Weta Workshop in Wellington used to make props for the Lord of the Rings films.

The Panji themes are universal; think Romeo and Juliet. Boy Panji Inu Kertapati, Prince of Jenggala, meets girl Dewi Sekartaji princess of the Kediri Kingdom.  He’s already booked but guess what - they tumble into love.
Crisis! Dewi disappears on their wedding day - did she know of the Other Woman, get cold feet or spirited away by a foe?  
Panji sets out to retrieve his True Love.  He confronts rivals, fights assailants and triumphs as befits a gallant. This gives space aplenty for sideways romps into intrigue, faith, politics, threats, moral and gender issues and what it means to be human.  
Spoiler alert: Dewi transforms herself into a man Panji Semirang. Will her lover be duped? Think Rosalind in As You Like It.
Panji stories allegedly originated in East Java but are found throughout Southeast Asia. In Thailand they are called Inao. Nationalists claim this shows Java is the origin of much Asian art rivaling India, the source of the epic performance poems Ramayana and Mahabharata.

“Culture should be central if international relationships are to be improved,” said Bantolo, lecturer at the Institut Seni Indonesia (ISI - Indonesian Arts Institute) in Solo. Also known as Surakarta the city is near Yogyakarta.

“Some mask dances are nearly extinct; maybe fifty per cent of Indonesians don’t know the culture.  We are trying to conserve and revive and make the stories more popular through contemporary choreography. But kayungyun remains the base.

ISI has set up a Centre for World Dance Studies to promote masked dancing and attract overseas students. Bantolo has performed in the Netherlands, Britain and Germany, and been a guest lecturer at Michigan State University.  He plans to enrol for a PhD at Royal Holloway, University of London next year.

Our take of the Panji tales isn’t simply a love story between Panji and Dewi, though that’s been the standard interpretation,” he said.

Rather we always keep an eye on what we feel is the story’s higher humanity. So throughout our creative process we hold onto the cultural symbols reflected in the Panji narrative.

“These include keblat papat, the Javanese interpretations of the four cardinal points and associated elements to maintain harmony and balance. Then there’s the interplay of the macro-cosmos and micro-cosmos, agrarian culture, and the arts of carving and painting masks; all are sources for our creative ideas.

“The challenge is to reflect these ideas differently - as a cultural dialogue. The dance movements are drawn from the court styles of the Keraton Surakarta (Solo Palace Court) and the Pura Mangkunegaran (Sultan’s Palace).

“Our innovations include sharing masks between multiple dancers. The story is told through tembang (sung poetry) and monologuesIt’s a mix of theatre, opera and dance.”

Bantolo, 43, was brought up in a liberal Catholic family of creatives which let him choose a career. His grandfather was a dalang (puppet master). He was playing in the gamelan at ten.

He said an early reference to masks in performances appeared in an 11th century manuscript from the royal court of Jenggala. (The short-lived kingdom was probably located at Sidoarjo near Surabaya).

To mask can mean to hide one’s face or wear a different face, an imitation,” he said.
A mask can represent a certain personality, a community or the values of a cultural system. By wearing masks,rather than hiding we expose and explore something about the reality of the human condition.
“I want the world not just to enjoy and respect our creativity, but to understand what’s behind our culture and the way we think and feel.  Indonesians are close to nature and the universe.  We have so much to share.”
(First published in Inside Indonesia 23 December 2017:

Saturday, December 16, 2017



"I am not willing to allow the word 'Christian' to be claimed and defined exclusively by the voices of the past."  John Shelby Spong - Unbelievable.

Indonesian churches were full this past Christmas.  Many ran back-to-back services and erected marquees in car parks to handle the overflow.  This suggests a pious society, but Christians in this country - where almost 90 per cent are Muslim - tend to be exclusive, often evangelical, sanctimonious and rarely progressive.

Back in Australia the secular Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has just made 409 recommendations to stop this evil recurring though  some churches are already resisting change.  Details of the villainy here:

The coupling of these events has prompted this personal reflection:

Kill the message, promote the messenger        

When my teenage younger brother died from a brain tumour our mother threw a fit outside the London cemetery chapel.  She erupted when the officiating minister told her Neil ‘had gone to a better place.’

‘How do you know?’ she screamed, and then shouted with the unchallengeable  certainty he lacked: ‘You don’t know!’ Wisely he didn’t respond aware that no answer would satisfy. He walked on to his next funeral while my father tried to placate Mum’s anger and steer her away from the gaping mourners.

I disagreed with my mother on almost everything so still kept going to church hoping one day I’d find the answers. That never happened.  

The last church I quit mid-service was on Easter Sunday about ten years ago.  The denomination was Anglican, what Americans call Episcopal and the British Church of England.

The supreme governor of this undemocratic institution with 85 million adherents is a  nonagenarian with a dysfunctional family and no university degrees or theological training.  She has the job only because a lusty distant relative called Harry wanted a divorce.  So much for divine direction.

The vicar was a robust guy, not one of the wimps who retreat into the ministry because they can’t handle the world then tell others how to live.

The upper middle-class congregation had been reasonably welcome though some Tory elders had difficulties masking their disapproval of a newcomer with an Asian wife.  

The church’s Italianate style fits well into the comfortably established 19th century inner Wellington suburb, so overall a pleasant environment.  But on this particular morning a Damascus Road moment arrived when we stood to recite the Nicene Creed.

As a schoolboy in Britain forced to kneel in St Albans Cathedral twice a week because holiness had to be enforced, the Profession of Faith was easily recitable; but for some curious reason a half-century later it suddenly became unacceptable.

The seeds of disillusion had been germinating for decades before they bloomed into clarity: Every time I chanted the Creed I was lying.


I did not believe in the one God, Father Almighty or the immaculate conception. My teen questions had always been flicked aside as in bad taste, sinful even.  

Why was the Deity male? Did his son have the same reproductive gear I had under his drapes and been through the same pangs of puberty? How could the educated citizens of an enlightened age parrot pre-scientific nonsense on Sundays and then use reason in their lives for the rest of the week?

Like the vicar at my little brother’s funeral they had no answers.

‘Virgin births’ were a standard myth in many cultures to explain the teenage daughter’s bump to the neighbours. Nothing new here. Parthenogenesis is confined to a few plants, some fish and various bugs including water fleas.  But not humans.

Disassociating Mary’s pregnancy from the passion of the carnal act which precedes the entry of everyone else to the world seemed more about prudery; it made sex unclean and not the overwhelming delight most of us experience.

Joseph meekly accepting his bride’s claim that she’d been bonked by an angel doesn’t pass the sniff test.  ‘Look, Joe, you wouldn’t or couldn’t do it so I got Gabriel to come around.  It’ll take a few more centuries but eventually you logheads will learn that women also have sexual needs.’

‘No worries Mary, these things happen,’ says the cuckolded hubby proving himself the most forgiving Christian. ‘Better head to Bethlehem - no-one knows us there. I’ve got the donkey fueled; we’ll pay our tax to Caesar and fill in the census at the same time’.

Divorcing nature

This shrinking from nature and turning love to abhorrence created the prohibitions on married clergy. These led to extreme agonies, evil deeds and betrayals exposed by 21st century inquiries into priestly pederasty. That explanation isn’t watertight as many perverts have been Protestants and sometimes wedded. Who screened these men when they applied to be God’s reps?

The Fathers who have sinned most egregiously have soiled the faith they taught and damned its credibility as a force for good. The threat to the church they feared was not from the pagans without but the dog-collared villains within.

Jesus would have put millstones around their necks and cast them in the sea.  Fortunately for them the law had learned Christian compassion.

Despite sitting though many explanations the idea of the Holy Ghost proved unreachable. Acceptance required jumping too many chasms unbridgeable by logic.

The 17th  century Italian scientist and philosopher Galileo Galilei wrote: ‘I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason and intellect has intended us to forgo their use and by some other means to give us knowleedge which we can attain by them.
BTW, he was the geek who said the world went around the sun.  The holy whitebeards claiming greater knowledge bequeathed to them by God forced him to recant or be tortured to death.

The Catholic Church maintained that condemnation till last century.  And we are supposed to respect these frauds and believe their ‘wisdoms’? Any resemblance to richly-attired men performing archaic rituals in splendid cathedrals and a manger-born woodworker from a poor family offering a few universal truths is purely coincidental.

The Trinity idea had been conjured up by male theologians centuries after the death of Christ and who had then turned prayer into profit. This wall between Muslims and Christians has caused huge trouble over the ages so long overdue for demolition.

So farewell Father and Holy Ghost - how about the Son? First question for a sceptic - did he ever exist? Second question: Does it matter?

To date we know of only three written references - one false, another probably made up - leaving just one impartial account by the Roman historian Tacitus.

His original manuscript is missing, which is a worry as much might have been added or subtracted to the surviving copies. The Senator was reporting almost a century later; likewise with the Gospel Four and the misogynist apostle Paul.

Writers, not reporters

Like so many men in the Bible he seems to have been emasculated by the mystery and power of women so retreated to spurn and hate. He should have stayed a tax collector instead of focusing on Jesus rather than his wisdoms.

Paul and the other writers smothered Christ’s basic message about love it with warped histories, lies, dogma, their own sexual hang-ups and egos plus heaven knows how much superstition and revisionism.  But somehow the principles survived; applying them was another matter.

None of these men had ever met Jesus; all relied on hand-me-down tales. As journalists covering courts know well, even honest and neutral onlookers to recent events can be mistaken in their recall and interpretation.

How much more so when decades had passed, written records were few and the stories embellished and censored in the recounting. It seems Jesus never put pen to papyrus which suggests he might have been illiterate. The gospels are four different accounts of the life of one man - they can’t even agree on his birth.

Then there was the problem of translation through several languages; it’s unlikely all scribes were bias-free.  It’s not just authoritarian governments that re-write history.

Portrait of a stirrer

The pictures usually show Christ as a handsome, often bearded, well-assembled Caucasian who liked the company of lambs and little kids.  A man like that seen near a kindergarten  today would soon find Child Welfare and the Police asking questions.

All the portraits come from artists’ imagination coloured by their culture and beliefs. There are no eye-witness accounts. He could have been a swarthy Kim Jong-un lookalike with a hooked nose who would certainly get pulled aside from an LA immigration queue.  

If he did return he’d need to wear a sober business suit and tie, be clean shaven, short haired and have polished shoes to be accepted among the evangelicals.  But there’s going to be no second coming, no supernatural solution; the problems we have are for us to fix

Having a knockabout tradie challenging the elite who had built careers and fortunes around claiming exclusive knowledge of God’s will was not on.  Prophets don’t dovetail chairs, they mount thrones.  The job requires lineage, divinity and mystic skills. As these weren’t in the original version they had to be invented and the story retrofitted to match the Messiah as reported in the Old Testament.

And who’d want to hear an upstart Jew without letters after his name trying to say profound things unless he had a swag of loaves-and-fishes party tricks to draw the crowds?

Had motorbikes been invented the Gang of Twelve would be wearing big boots not sandals for these lads were outsiders and trouble-makers for sure.

They would have unsettled the colonial power and spurred complaints from Concerned Citizens of Capernaum.  No wonder they called out the armed anti-terror squad which brought the boss in for questioning.

Today we don’t need to recite ancient yarns about a shunned woman with menorrhagia getting embraced, or a Samaritan giving a hit and run victim first aid to know there are moral forks in everyone’s daily road.

Like former President Jimmy Carter quitting his church because ‘women and girls have been discriminated against for too long in a twisted interpretation of the word of God.  Pity he waited 60 years to find his conscience.

That leaves the last biggie in the Creed: ‘And the third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven and sitteth on the right hand of the Father’.

Learning but not applying

Two millennia ago the natural universe was little understood. Republics had yet to be invented so rulers were kings. Women were just the soil for a man’s seed. The masses were uneducated and the administration brutal and feudal.

This was the age of prophecies drawn from the Hebrew Bible and full of yarns of a coming Messiah, the promised land, Armageddon and God knows what.  

Shooting stars weren’t meteorites burning up in the atmosphere but portents of evil.  Sickness was the penalty for sin - not infection from pathogens.  What couldn’t be explained was labeled a curse or miracle, terms now almost extinct outside literary use.

The prophets were con artists exploiting ignorance with tales of devils and battles in heaven. Forecasters of the Second Coming with Christ on a white horse would have got claps and shekels, no matter that nothing came to pass.

Predicting the discovery of space, electricity, radio waves, smartphones, McDonald’s burgers and driverless cars would have led to being ostracised like the lepers or condemned to death.  

If these sages were so smart why didn’t they foretell the industrial revolution, or if that was too secular, Martin Luther and the birth of Protestantism?

Christ’s world was small and flat and knowledge narrow; heaven was just beyond the clouds, so Jesus defying gravity would have made sense 1,700 years before Sir Isaac Newton worked out the science and the impossibility.

Not now.  New Zealand theologian Sir Lloyd Geering’s comments that the bones of Jesus still lie in Palestine crazed conservatives last century.  

Tomorrow we might click on a YouTube news clip of an archaeological dig uncovering a headstone marked JESVS KRISTVS RIP.

What happens next?  The Nicene Creed then collapses like a jerry-built house of worship in an earthquake.

Those who’d erected their faith on fantasy tales and adulation of authority will be homeless in the rubble, calling for spiritual CPR and whispering: ‘What remains?’

Just the story of a charismatic stirrer who had the courage to confront the establishment’s chicanery, offer a code of living, got cruelly killed for his trouble yet forgave his persecutors.  Now that’s a model to admire.

The problem is that JC’s simple prescriptions for peaceful living are almost indigestible: Never hate. Be tolerant, show compassion. Treat others as you’d want them to treat you.  And here’s the real frightener - love thy neighbour.

Now that’s a step too far. They might be gay. There’s been a translation hiccup here, as the anti-Semitic Billy Graham (no known relative, thank God) might say:

‘Check the New International Version against the King James and you’ll see why ‘take no thought for the morrow’ doesn’t prohibit buying life insurance.’  Heaven forbid!

Let’s give this a bit of thought for, say, 20 centuries?  No harm in that - rushing leads to mistakes. In the meantime better convert him into a king with feudal authority demanding to be venerated, and hire televangelists to dust away doubts.  

Wear crucifixes, the bigger the better. Although the Bible is on the smartphone, prominently tout an oxblood natural grain leather-bound volume to show we’re holy and superior. Give money for the steeple-rebuild but tell the poor and needy they’ll get our prayers.

Subscribe to slick talkers explaining things differently - just don’t forget to renew. Otherwise they’ll go elsewhere and sell sub-prime mortgage bonds.  Anticipate the rapture and pray that it’s exclusive to good decent law-abiding God fearing folks with licensed firearms living in gated communities.

Now that yanks us out of trouble. We can retain our membership. It’s so much easier to glorify the man and ignore what he was saying - to kill the message and promote the messenger. That is Christianity’s most grievous sin.

My mother was right: Like all in his trade, the man who buried Neil didn’t know. And neither do we.