Wednesday, December 19, 2007


Review: A Gentle Bunyip: the Athol Gill Story, by Harold Pidwell (Seaview Press, 2007).

Athol Gill was arguably Australia's highest-profile Baptist New Testament scholar. When he died in 1992 from a massive heart attack at the young age of 54, memorial services were held in his honour at the Community Church of St. Mark (Clifton Hill Baptist Church) and Collins St Baptist Church in Melbourne; and in Washington DC, San Francisco, Liverpool, San Salvador and Zurich.

Athol was, according to his friends and enemies, controversial. He might be the only senior Baptist figure to have been voted out of office in two state denominational meetings (Queensland and Victoria). But he made history in Victoria by losing one Assembly vote (by just a few percentage points) then later winning by 90%! I was at that meeting, and, with many others, spoke for him. In essence my message then (and now): 'We must expect - indeed encourage - prophets to do whatever it takes to get our attention. But if we then persecute them for siding with the poor we'll have a hard time at the Judgment!'

Why did Athol Gill get up the noses of Australian Baptist conservatives? Three clues:

* His friend and colleague Graeme Garrett said of him: 'I knew Athol could be tough. He spoke his mind, not always tactfully.' When, in the 1970s, I was senior pastor of a middle-class church in Blackburn, Melbourne, negative comments used to float back to us via his students. (But in retrospect, yes, we did some good work among the homeless poor, but could have been much more radical in terms of social justice).

* He inveighed against those who armed themselves with proof texts and a 'flat Bible', and were not willing to wrestle with the diversity of interpretations in the various biblical sources. For example, the picture we have of the poor in the Chronicler, or early Proverbs, or John, is not the same as that in the pre-exilic prophets, or Jesus (especially in Luke). So how do we develop a valid hermeneutic about the poor from this range of emphases? Simple: we start with Jesus, and work backwards and forwards from his teaching and example, understanding how, for example, the theological viewpoint of the priests, Levites or cultic prophets influenced the books we know today as Joshua, Judges, I and II Chronicles etc. etc.

* Although Athol preached 'Good News for the Rich' as well as 'Good News for the Poor' the rich 'copped it' from him incessantly: it is 'difficult, if not impossible', for the rich who don't really care for the poor, to get into the Kingdom. More than once middle-class parishioners gave him an 'ear-full'. Despite a few texts in Proverbs which blame the poor for being slothful, the overwhelming message of the biblical prophets is that the poor are not destitute by accident: the systems of this world are biassed towards legally or illegally transferring wealth in only one direction. Was he a Marxist? 'No, Marx was too conservative!' Read Pidwell's book to figure that out!

And read it for an interesting commentary on what happens when a strong, charismatic leader exerts disproportionate power over others within a community (like endorsing or otherwise the choice of life-partners) or fails, despite his best efforts, to ensure a smooth leadership-succession. Read it also to follow the story of a renewed inner-suburban church: when Athol Gill wanted to baptize some converts at Clifton Hill Baptist Church, folks who'd been there for decades confessed they didn't know where the baptistry was!

When I read biographies of pastors/scholars/theologians I want to know how they came to their belief-system, what they did with their beliefs in terms of practical ministry, and what those who knew them best say about them as persons. Pidwell's offering is very good in the first two areas: but I would have liked more about Athol-the-man from a few others who knew him well - like his wife and children, John Hirt, Tim Costello, Rowena and Andrew Curtis, Ken Manley, Keith Dyer et. al. (But see the feschrift edited by David Neville, 'Prophecy and Passion: Essays in Honor of Athol Gill' for some more on Athol the man and his ideas: my review is at ).

I regularly use Athol's two main publications - The Fringes of Freedom and Life on the Road. But in the last 90 pages of this book Pidwell offers us a previously unpublished (and unedited, and replete with 40-50 typos!) essay by Athol titled 'Poverty and the Poor in the Bible' which summarizes his life-work as a scholar and teacher. Someone should write some discussion-questions to accompany Athol's notes for discussion-groups in our churches.

Pidwell's biography is must-read for anyone who wants to accompany one man on his journey as an advocate for the poor. What would Jesus do for the marginalized, the homeless, schizophrenics - the 'little people' - in a city like Melbourne? I think he would (again) have a bias towards these poor, like Athol did.

Review copy supplied by Ridley Melbourne Bookshop,

Rowland Croucher
December 2007.