How it all goes together

One of the things I said I wanted to do this year was to write regularly – and that has taken different forms throughout the year, but I’ve found it has been really worthwhile. Being a personal blog, the content here has changed over the course of the year. (I’ve also done some private writing for my study, as part of a Period of Discernment with the Uniting Church in Australia, and as part of a pilgrimage to Lake Mungo.) On this blog recently I’ve almost only been talking about tabletop roleplaying games, particularly Dungeons & Dragons, but earlier in the year I was also posting a lot more religious-mythological Bible content, stuff I’d been observing in my neighbourhood, opinion pieces about the proposed homeless ban in Melbourne, stuff about migrant-settler-colonial identity in Australia…

Sometimes people tell me I’m doing an awful lot of different things, but in my mind all of those stuff comes back to one thing, and that’s critical engagement with stories. As my collaborator Matt Valler has been saying,

‘Every city is full of hidden stories that quietly enforce the rules we live by. Labyrinth uncovers those stories so that together we can rewrite the rules.’

We need to be able to engage with stories in a critical way because they can shape our society for better or for worse. (And it’s often a lot more complex than just good stories and bad stories!)

Anyway, that has been my focus, and I hope that gives an idea about what holds my year together!

Religious-mythological story
This year it’s been really helpful having regular contracts with the Victorian Council of Christian Education, illustrating resources written by my friend Beth Barnett. (I also did a little bit or writing for the season of Lent early in the year.) What I like is that VCCE are really in favour of critical reflection on the Bible, not just in academic institutions and not just for adults but for the whole church. Personally it’s also been helpful just having regular stuff to work on so that I can improve my skills and reinforce a regular practise of drawing – which makes it easier to pick up other religious-mythological work with groups like Scripture Union Victoria, Gembrook Retreat, Baptist Union of Victoria, Surrender and Melbourne Welsh Church.

Story through gaming
The discipline has also meant I’ve been able to start expanding into doing tabletop roleplaying illustration through Owlman Press (I’ll be playtesting our new game Phantasmagoria next week) and Encounter Roleplay (my new Dungeons & Dragons adventure King Dawutti’s Legacy is now available to our Patreon supporters). I find there’s often also cross-pollination between the two, because a story from the Abrahamic mythologies might provide a structure or a setting for an adventure, or the elements of a parable might provide an idea for a monster. In the new year I’m excited about some new gaming projects that I’m currently working on thanks to connections with the #DnD community on Twitter.

What interests me most is how our games often draw on stories that are already part of our society, but invite us to engage with the creatively. I think there are also opportunities to experiment in how we cooperate with others or engage in conflict at the table. It’s been great getting back into a regular rhythm of hosting games (and getting to occassionally play!) with a fairly diverse group of players.

While I’m talking about gaming, I also need to mention that I’ve appreciated being able to continue working with Evan at Rival Sky. I don’t play most of the games we sell (I do play Star Wars: Imperial Assault a little bit) but it’s really helpful having something to do that’s regular, dependable and practical. (You might be surprised how therapeutic the physicality of packing parcels can be!)

Story in the real, physical world
I think physicality is really important. I don’t think our engagement with story can stay in the realm of reflecting on Biblical mythology or participating in narrative through games. I think it has to have an impact on our actual world. With Labyrinth we’ve been inviting people to do this kind of critical reflection on stories in the city streets, as we have done in Melbourne for a long time. It’s been great being able to see this practise continuing in Melbourne as Urban Seed (where I learned this practise) has been gradually winding up, and seeing experiments happening in London, Dallas and Washington DC. Reflection on the stories needs to lead to response, and for some of us that has meant engaging with the government and wider community about the homelessness ban that was proposed by the Lord Mayor Robert Doyle.

What we do in our home is also being informed by reflecting on our story. Our household, the Indigenous Hospitality House (named in honor of the hospitality we’ve so often received from Aboriginal and other Indigenous peoples) is a response to the story of our colonial history and the to the question ‘What does it mean to live on stolen land?’ In recent years we’ve been trying different ways of inviting other people to reflect on and respond to that story and question, because we think it’s something our whole society needs to grapple with. Early in the year we released a book as a way of sharing some of our learnings and inviting others into reflection. Mehrin and I got to take some time out to participate in the Yingadi pilgirmage to Lake Mungo with Vicki Clark, a Mutthi Mutthi woman who helped set up IHH at the beginning. As we finished up this year we have a few people leaving our household, but the three of us who’ve been living there for a while feel encouraged to have others joining us – especially since a few years ago we weren’t sure where we’d find enough people to keep operating!

In 2018
I mentioned at the beginning of this post that this year I participated in a Period of Discernment with the Uniting Church. My sense throughout this period has been that what I need to be doing is spending time near the boundaries of the church and out in the wider world, where people are engaging with and responding to the stories of our world. (I think that fits within the scope of the Uniting Church’s understanding of what a deacon does.) I expect I’ll be continuing these practises and seeing where they lead.

Genesis and weresharks

Sunday to Wednesday I was in a class on Indigenous Theologies and Methods, which NAIITS (North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies) was running here through Whitley College. One of the things we spent a lot of time discussing was the differences between how Western Christians have read the Bible and how the Bible might be read from Indigenous cultural perspectives. One particular emphasis that our teacher Terry LeBlanc (a Mi’qmac man from Canada) noted was the tendency for Western Christians to focus on the rupturing of creation in Genesis 3 and overlook the goodness of creation in Genesis 1-2. His suggestion was that rather than Genesis 3 being an ultimate fall from perfection, it is more like a break in relationship between people, God, spirits and fellow creatures.

At the same time I’ve been participating in the #DungeonDrawingDudes challenge for July. Each day there’s a Dungeons & Dragons creature to draw, and Tuesday’s challenge was a wereshark, which I really enjoyed drawing.

@bodieh, who lives in Western Australia (where the government has encouraged the culling of sharks) is one of the organisers of the challenge, commented on this one. I wondered whether this wereshark might be looking for former Western Australian premier Colin Barnett? I wondered whether we should be paying attention to what sharks may be trying to say to us, rather than culling them? It certainly seems unfair to me that we would venture into their natural environment and then kill them when they attack us.

Tales from the Table

tales from the table

Our household, Indigenous Hospitality House, has just published a book. Tales from the Table gathers together a range of things that our household have been learning as Settler (non-Indigenous) people sharing our home with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families, on stolen land.

While the practical part of our mission is providing hospital accommodation, we also recognise that we have a role to play in helping Settler people rethink Australian and Christian identity in light of our colonial history. We hope that this book can help extend those conversations into the wider community.

You can buy a copy at our web store here. If you want to drop in and pick up your copy you can save on postage. And you can stick around for a cup of tea and a chat.

Creating an ‘Australian’ D&D setting is problematic

The last two weekends I’ve posted some illustrations of some Australian creatures which could be used in roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons: a fey possum and some extinct megafauna.

However, I think it’s problematic to think of creating an ‘Australian’ setting for D&D. I think any setting that seeks to portray Australia in any honest way needs to be shaped by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander stories. While D&D is a fantasy game, it is clearly set during a medieval period, and I think it’s dishonest to protray an ‘Australian’ setting inhabited by the European characters that often have dominated high fantasy.

There are some discussions online where folks have shared ideas for an ‘Australian’ or ‘Aboriginal’ setting, but they come across to me as ignorant and cringeworthy. When I was reflecting on this, I couldn’t put my finger on what it was and I wasn’t sure if it was just me.

I decided to reach out to Timothy Wood, author of Australi, on Twitter. I asked about how they’ve gone about portraying Aboriginal societies in their comic. Tim said he’s not Indigenous, but that they’ve been working with folks who are. He was saying that he thinks stuff often comes across as ignorant and embarassing is because folks who are taking ideas from Indigenous cultures don’t actually care for the subject matter. I think he’s right. It often seems like people are just raiding someone’s culture for ideas that seem cool or interesting.

Ryan Griffen, creator of Cleverman, said that he went through the process of being initiated so that he could learn stories that inspired the show. But even then he didn’t retell the stories he learned, because that would be disrespectful and would destroy the trust that elders had placed in him:

Aboriginal protocols are complex to navigate, and informed much of our process. We could sit in the writers’ room and come up with something amazing that hit all the genre beats to make a great hour of television, but if it crossed the line of what we can say and do around Aboriginal culture and Aboriginal stories, then we had to revise our thinking. These are protocols put in place by Aboriginal elders who passed the stories over to me for the show. They put their trust in me and the team, and that was one of the biggest breakthroughs that enabled us to go ahead with the series. The elders were trying to achieve something very special that would help to keep our culture growing.

– Ryan Griffen, ‘We need more Aboriginal superheroes, so I created Cleverman for my son’, The Guardian, 27 May 2016

So I would remain hesitant about the idea of trying to create an Australian setting. But if there are any Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander folks around who are into roleplyaing games, I’d be interested in getting in touch.

There’s a discussion of this post on reddit here.

Getting it wrong


On Friday I wrote a post about a Wandjina painting I saw in Brunswick, and why it doesn’t belong there. My friend Jen asked whether there can be space to ask dumb questions and make mistakes as we seek to work as allies of other groups. It can be easy for us to just keep quiet and refrain from acting because we’re afraid of doing the wrong thing. My experience has been that more often than not folks do give us space to get things wrong and to make ignorant mistakes. As a Settler Person seeking to be an ally of First Peoples I’ve often gotten things wrong and I’ve generally been corrected and forgiven if I’ve been open to being corrected and if I’ve been open to deepening our relationship. I think many of us carry some culutural baggage that says that we can’t get things wrong, that our peoples always have to get things right. It’s a hangover from believing our race and culture were superior to others. I think that is something we need to loosen our grip on.

A nest, a seat and a tuber: invitations to a new Australian identity

This week we’ve been away from the city. We’ve been in Daylesford, in the goldfields.
Today is the national holiday, which is actually a day of mourning for our First Peoples. This year there’s been more momentum than to change the date.

While we’ve been in Daylesford I’ve noticed a few things around the town which I think call us toward new possibilities as a nation.
They are a nest sculpture at the Wombat Hill Botanical Gardens…

…a park bench with a Greek proverb written on it…

and a community garden full of murnongs (yam daisies):

I think we are being invited to conceive Australia in a new way.
We could say that Australia is an opportunity to grow a sense of home.
There is a sense that every people group that makes up this modern country has experienced the trauma of losing of home.
That could be an experience that brings us together.
It could be an experience that calls us to grow a sense to home, a nest, to create a new society together.
It could be an invitation to create a place where other dislocated peoples can sit and find shelter. (We could recognise other dislocated people as going through the Australian experience.)
But that has to start with hearing the stories of dispossession and dislocation that our First Peoples have experienced.
January 26 could be a day when we acknowledge this, instead of a day where we get smashed, trying to forget the trauma of our colonial history.

What’s remarkable about the yam daisies growing in the community garden is that they were a staple vegetable for First Peoples in this part of the land. They were mostly destroyed by European colonists’ herd animals. This seriously diminished the food that was available to First Peoples.
I wonder, could restoring the murnongs be a step of repentance for Settler peoples?

The Corporeality of the Resurection

Yesterday I spoke at Moreland Baptist Church in Brunswick, not far from where I live at the Indigenous Hospitality House in Carlton North. In the liturgical calendar Easter actually goes for several weeks, so we were continuing to reflect on the story of Jesus’ execution and resurrection. In the story we read, from John’s gospel, Jesus mysteriously appears among his friends in the middle of a closed room, still bearing the marks of his execution. He breathes on them his executed-and-resurrected breath, telling them that they have the power to forgive sins or leave them standing. No flames above the disciples heads like we find in the book of Acts. In John’s account, God’s Spirit is the breath of the executed-and-resurrected.


Jesus’ friend Thomas misses all this and doesn’t believe it. He says he needs to see it for himself, to even touch the scars in Jesus hands and put his hand inside the hole in his body. Jesus turns up for Thomas’ benefit and challenges him to do exactly that.

Many people in our society today also find it hard to take the accounts of the resurrection seriously because of a lack of any material, corporeal evidence. However, I think there is actual corporeal, material confirmation of the resurrection out there. I have experienced it in the welcome and hospitality I have received from our First Peoples, despite the poor track record of Settler people. It is bodily because it has taken the form of shared food and drink, shared shelter in the bad weather, a hug of welcome. This is the forgiveness that the resurrected Jesus talks about.

I also see confirmation of the resurrection in the witness of Leo Seemanpillai. Leo
came to Australia as an asylum-seeker, and was living in Geelong when he received the news that his application for asylum had failed and that he would be returned to Sri Lanka. He feared that when he returned he would be killed, and in despair he took his own life. In his death Leo Seemanpillai returned our cruelty with generosity. He was registered as an organ donor. One of his eyes, one of his lungs, his kidneys and his liver were given to people who needed them. In a very material way, Leo Seemanpillai lives on in Australia, in our bodies, helping us to see, cleansing our bodies and giving us breath. This is the kind of forgiveness that the breath of Christ gives. This is not just as an illustration, an allegory or a parable. This is serious and it is real, and we need to take time to consider what it means.