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Small Talk

As a man writes this down, he calls to mind those many instances in which he wished he was at home, reading. He would say to himself, I wish I were at home now, and then picture himself huddled up with a book of no particular title, but nevertheless certain that the pleasure and comfort he found in that imagined tableau would exceed anything before his eyes. Usually what he saw, in what others would call real life, was a party gathering of young people, who were awkwardly seated in ill-fitting suits and brightly coloured dresses, learning how to eat with the right set of forks and knives, and how to empty a glass by tilting its stem. At a certain point, when the characters on stage had stopped their speeches and food was in abeyance, the lights would dim and some music that the man recognised as the sort he heard while wandering through shopping malls would play at high volume; soon there would be several out on the dance floor, and reluctant partners (mostly male) would follow. But the man would remain in his seat and look on at the circle forming around one or another dancer, or notice how the strobes coloured a bridesmaid’s magenta dress, or how the roaming spotlight might chance upon a foot or an ear, a high heel lifted or a ribbon askew. The man would never dance, even if others around him forced the heavy-footed onto the dance floor. He would get on his feet only to walk to the bathroom, where he would take his time urinating and washing and drying his hands and slowly making his way back, mesmerised by the moving colours of the light. And then he would sit down again, wait for dessert, and distract himself with anything that might take attention from dancing, all the while thinking: I would rather be at home, reading.

It was not that the man was antisocial. As a child of migrants who lived in the suburbs of the North or Northwest of Sydney, he had grown up under much the same conditions as many of these wedding guests. He could be described as reserved and quiet, but was friendly enough to engage in some ‘small talk’. He had come to learn from his pastor – the young but grey-haired minister of an English-speaking congregation at a Chinese church, as it was called – that small talk was an invaluable thing to engage in. To be sure, small talk was just chitchat, of little relevance in the larger scheme of things, but without small talk it would be impossible to talk about deeper things. Perhaps it should have been called shallow talk, implying that there was by contrast deep talk, but the man had never heard that term. It was small talk. And so the man tried as best as he could, remembering what his pastor had told him, to be a good small talker.

One thing the pastor had suggested was never to ask what the person with whom one was having small talk did for a living. One should avoid at all costs embarrassing the person, should the reluctant answer be that the person did not work, or that the person was a labourer or a receptionist or did something not particularly reputable. Of course, there would be some who would wish to volunteer such information, having in their possession a title or occupation of some esteem (a doctor, a lawyer, an accountant) or being in the process of acquiring it. But for the most part it was better, the pastor had advised, to begin the conversation elsewhere rather than, in his words, put them immediately in a box, a category or type of person one could confidently name – and so bring the conversation to an abrupt halt. The other reason, the pastor had said, was that one wished to withhold judgment, to resist defining a person by a job currently held, which in all likelihood the person had learned to identify with and lean upon in times of doubt and crisis, but which could easily be the cause of doubt and crisis in the person’s so-called identity, tied up as it was with the person’s function in everyday society.

In practice, avoiding the question of a person’s work was difficult. If one conscientiously avoided the subject, it became the absent centre around which all other talk revolved; if it were something that the interlocutor desired to answer, wishing to disclose it at any moment, there were only so many ways to avoid the topic or shift the conversation onto a plain where it was far from sight. But on occasion a shift was made, and the man and the interlocutor would enjoy a conversation free from the cultural imperative of needing to work or preparing to work, finding a landscape where the question of job and career was invisible, at best irrelevant. In these attempts at small talk, the man (who was at the time a young man) was stumbling with the interlocutor onto a field they had once glimpsed, but which had receded so much from view that they had hardly looked that way and, as they grew older, had begun to doubt its existence.

The young man had been confident that he might find it, or something close to it, in the church. This did not mean that he thought of the church, whether the red-brick Gothic building with two sandstone towers in the suburb of Milsons Point or the gatherings of people who met there or the various ministries that were in some way connected to it, as that once-glimpsed field, but there was something in it, what he might have termed truth or the Gospel or even love, which had led him to believe. The young man did not remember when he first believed, or whether there was a specific day and time when it could be said that he had crossed from darkness into light. He only remembers that he had found a dark blue playing-sized card between the pages of his blue leather Student Bible, edited by the American author Philip Yancey. After he had read from one or another chapter and verse from the Bible, he had looked at the dark blue card and saw a prayer in a cursive font, and decided to recite the words of the prayer as his own. He did this, saying the formulaic phrases under his breath, trying to show a certain seriousness as he uttered them – Dear God, I acknowledge I am a sinner… – in the hope that some decisive feeling of change might overcome him as he asked for forgiveness, thanked Jesus for dying on the cross, and presented himself as a newborn supplicant who was assured of God’s approval, once and for all.

The problem, however, was that this was not the first time the young man had prayed this kind of prayer. He does not remember clearly any earlier time when he discovered a similar prayer card in his Bible which had prompted him to deliver himself, at least verbally, into the Saviour’s arms. As a boy, the young man had attended one or two or three so-called evangelistic meetings. He had travelled in a midnight-blue Holden Berlina with his parents or an uncle and an auntie across the Sydney Harbour Bridge to sit in a large theatre on a Saturday evening. At the end of a rousing and energetic talk, which was the centrepiece of such meetings, the male speaker would call upon whoever felt led to lay their lives down for Jesus at the altar to do so now, and the boy would see several young women walk in the direction of the stage, first one, then another, and as others gathered courage (he surmised) several more. He would see the backs of the kneeling and standing figures, heads bowed, and after the speaker had laid an anointing hand on one or two of the heads and committed the newly faithful to God, the boy would catch a young woman’s delicate pale face, half-reddened by tears, as she walked back to her seat. The boy was too young to understand what had been uttered by the speaker to this large group of mostly black-haired people, let alone to feel the compunction that had led some to approach the altar at the speaker’s behest. He would learn that this was known as an altar call, although there was in reality no altar, just a brightly lit stage that was slightly elevated above the crowd. Nevertheless, he had wondered at the time what strange force had compelled these young women, who were probably in their early twenties, to decide in a single night to commit their lives to God and Jesus, to these characters who were mere strangers yesterday. What had overcome them to be so bold as to step forward, away from the crowd?

To the boy, God and Jesus were not strangers but familiar characters whom he addressed fairly regularly if not, at times, a little frivolously. When he prayed to God, he had once seen in his mind an old man with a grey beard, but a Sunday school teacher, whom he addressed by prefacing the teacher’s first name with auntie even though they were not related, had said that that was not what God looked like. So the boy tried to shut out any image of God when the word God was mentioned, and imagined God closer to a voice which spoke from the clouds or out of the dark of night. But no one said to him that he could not imagine Jesus as a man with golden flowing hair, with blue eyes that looked on sympathetically at shepherds and their sheep and mysteriously cloaked women. When the boy was quite small, the image of Jesus in his mind was almost cartoonish, not so much coloured as whited out, leaving the mere outlines – as he had seen them in an illustrated Bible series for young children. Since the boy had never coloured in any of these outlined shapes, unlike other children of his age, the Jesus of his mind remained colourless, although at times, under the influence of other imagery and illustrations from his Sunday-school material, his Jesus would acquire golden locks or blue eyes or sometimes a light-brown beard. In most cases, coloured-in or not, his Jesus wore a white robe, which was secured by a thin black or brown belt and with always the right amount of folds.

God and Jesus did not seem to occupy the same reality plane as his parents and brother did. The boy had never been smacked by God, nor wrestled to the ground, nor forced to hold his breath under a pillow. Still, his parents spoke of God and Jesus in serious tones, and the boy assumed that the God and Jesus they spoke of was the God and Jesus he regularly addressed at night and before mealtimes. The young man had to admit that his saying grace, as it was called, was little more than perfunctory. In his defence, no matter how quickly he raced through the prayer – a prayer of two rhyming couplets he assumed he learned from his parents – he always said it before putting any meal to his lips (morning tea and snacks did not count). As a grown man he had discovered, to his surprise, that he could no longer recall all of the words. He was only certain that it contained the final lines, ‘Thank you for the food we eat, / Thank you God for everything.’

But what did the boy pray when left to his own devices? His Sunday-school teachers had given him some direction, in the way they themselves prayed in class and, as he got older, in explicit guidelines as to how he might structure his so-called spontaneous prayers. If the boy was addressing God and uttering words inwardly so that they resonated somehow in the chamber of his heart, wasn’t that a prayer of some sort? And if not exactly a prayer, at least the antithesis of small talk? But then, wasn’t prayer in essence the antithesis of small talk?

The young man remembers that as a boy he would confide in God things he would never mention to his family or even his closest friends. At the onset of puberty, or slightly before, the boy rubbed himself while on a pine three-seater with olive-coloured cushions in the television room. The boy did not know why he had this sudden urge (the 68 cm television was off), or why after rubbing he felt oddly sated, but when his father walked into the room he quickly stood up and scampered to his room. Luckily, no traces were to be found. The young man remembers that later in the night, or in the nights that followed, the boy had confessed to God about what he called his dickies, which is the term he used until he learnt some years later in a biological textbook that it already had a conventional name. (The textbook had described the act as accompanied by a ‘tingling sensation’, something he pointed out to a male classmate in a mocking way. The classmate threatened to call him an epithet based on the name of the act; so the boy, who was by then a teenager, never mentioned anything to do with it at the all-boys school in North Sydney he attended for the remaining four years.) The boy was not sure whether what he had done was a sin or not, only that it was something he ought not to do in the television room but in the privacy of his own bedroom, or when no one was around. The young man remembers the boy had begun confessing this action of his, yet in the middle of confessing he had been puzzled about its apparent wrongness. The boy apologised all the same; God would not fault him for being overly cautious.

As the boy grew into a young man, he would find himself semi-confessing this sin, which he was still unsure as to whether it was a sin or not. By the time he started having squeaks in his voice, he knew that sexual intercourse outside of marriage was a grave and serious sin – as grave and serious as divorce. His parents never spoke of these things except cryptically or in passing, always a little embarrassed or (in the case of his father) unusually strident when the subject was broached. In Sunday school he had learned from balding men that to look at a woman lustfully was a sin, and according to Jesus was tantamount to committing adultery. But what was it to look at a woman lustfully? The boy who was now a teenager did not really know. He knew that when he saw pretty women in underwear, or when one of these women had her bra undone to reveal her breasts, he would regularly feel much the same urge as he did on the pine three-seater and abscond to his room if he could. As he lay on his bed he would close his eyes and try to conjure up an image in his mind of the image he had just seen in a Grace Bros catalogue or on television. But the image would not stay in his mind’s eye for long – it would flicker or morph and, as his urgency arose, fade to nothing except for a few blotches.

The teenager always felt guilty after relieving his urges, but he was confused about his feeling so. He confessed it as a sin to God of course, but in his tangential prayers he would ask God, if such a line of questioning be allowed, what was precisely wrong with these acts of his. He had understood that he should flee from lust as the Bible commanded, but was the image of an attractive woman, which brought on certain urges which needed to be relieved, the same as adultery? The images that the teenager tried to bring to mind were not like any of those images of couples on television who were engaged, as the TV guide put it, in sex scenes. None of the images in his mind ever had a couple, even if the images of foreplay or sexual activity that he had seen on television usually involved a couple. He never imagined doing any of the things the male of the couple had done to the female of the couple, or rather he had only wished to gaze on the female in his mind as the male had done from where the male of the couple was sometimes positioned.

The teenager, however, had learnt not to speak of it, and in the rare or veiled instances that it came up he understood that it was an uncomfortable subject for adults and surely sinful. Yet while the act was denounced in the devotionals his father had given him to read daily, but which he never did for more than a stretch of a week, the various preachers who came to speak at church never denounced it outright and on occasion questioned the viewpoint of the devotional authors. The sin of onanism, one preacher had said, when he came across the Old Testament passage in his sermon and had no choice but to expound it, was not the sin of lust or self-pleasure, as some American commentators were wont to say, but the sin of pride: Onan, in spilling his seed on the ground when he slept with his brother’s wife, was refusing to do his duty of giving his deceased brother an heir. If one were to condemn self-pleasure or self-love, as secular sources referred to it, one would have to go elsewhere in the Bible for support. But the teenager knew that would lead to all those passages in the New Testament that spoke of lust and adultery and divorce and remarriage, and so leave aside the burning question of what he had thought was the sin of onanism.

Only at a certain point, when the teenager was well on his way to becoming a young man, did he accept, without being entirely satisfied by any one reason, that the private acts he did in his bedroom or when no one was around were sinful, and that he wished for God to take away his desires if it were His will. He had been given the idea from a letter that had been addressed to the author of a devotional book, a letter from a young man from America who was writing this letter in order to avoid the sin he would be committing at the time of writing, which was presumably at night. The teenager who was almost a young man does not remember how the author of the devotional responded, but it was clear that the desires that tormented the teenager were also the desires that tormented the young man from America. It was a struggle, to use a word common among Christians, that would not go away anytime soon. The teenager thought that the struggle would stop or abate somewhat when he got married, but when he had become an adult in the eyes of the state he had read a book by another American author that said that marriage would not resolve the problem. The desires would remain, and when there was no wife to satisfy them a husband would be left to the devices he had when he was single. In this book (the front cover of which had the words Pure Desire in bold italics and a picture of two hands upturned as if receiving water from a fountain), the author had also asserted that being left to one’s own devices meant one was always in the thrall of sin. It was impossible, the author said, for a man to relieve himself without the aid of what he called fantasy – and therefore without an image of a naked woman. The author himself gave a detailed account of his own fantasy-processes in which the unveiling of an image of a woman’s vagina was necessary to bring him to climax, although he admitted that other (Christian) men he knew found other images of women or women’s parts more necessary. Whatever the exact image or sequence of images required for men to relieve themselves, these images involved a certain unreality which turned women into objects.

The young man who was an adult was struck by the candour of the author, whose fantasy processes seemed to be similar to his own. At the time, the young man had continued to watch foreign movies late at night on the SBS TV channel in the hope of seeing an image of a woman which might bring about some sort of arousal, but he also waited for images of naked women to load onto the computer screen. The young man would click on a thumbnail image he wished to see enlarged, and would have to wait patiently as the image of the woman, from head to toe, would appear. Owing to the time it took for the picture to load on slow cable internet, the viewing of the static image became a virtual striptease: the blank, white screen would gradually disclose shapes and colours in horizontal bars that together resembled a woman’s naked body. The young man would later learn in a graduate seminar that this unveiling or disclosure was much like a blason, in which a Renaissance poet might describe in metaphor and simile the features of a beautiful woman according to the sequence the young man had viewed a Playboy centrefold.

The young man had to admit that he treated these women, or rather images of women, as objects for his own use; as soon as he had relieved his urges, he forgot about them and did not even dream about them. In his conversations with other churchgoers of his age, he made no mention of his fantasy-processes. When he prayed aloud in a group, he occasionally confessed the sin of lust, which everyone knew men of his age suffered from (with the exception of a small number of engineers). He would have preferred to confess the sin of pride or anger or greed, but during certain trying weeks he could not deny serious lapses in purity and was compelled to confess them, despite the shame it inevitably entailed.

On a late Sunday morning at a park on a busy street in Milsons Point, a group of youth-group leaders sat in a circle to ‘share and pray’. Among those leaders who were seated on the thick grass of the park was the young man, whose turn it was to disclose something of his spiritual life. Although the young man was embarrassed to say so, he confessed aloud that he had had one of those weeks in which lust had taken a firm grip of him, and there was no point in hiding it from his group of fellow youth leaders. After he had confessed the week’s sins aloud in prayer, one after another youth leader confessed the sin that had been burdening him or her for some time. For many of the men the sin that oppressed them was also lust, but not always; the women spoke of neglect or callousness, of wronging a friend or a parent, or an outburst of anger that had destroyed a relationship. When they had finished this outpouring of confession, one by one they opened their eyes and felt unexpectedly relieved. Rather than censure the young man for revealing his serious lapses that week, they were grateful for his admission of weakness, for it gave them licence to unburden themselves of what they had been too afraid to acknowledge, let alone confess aloud; it made them remember that despite being youth leaders, they – like the youth they led and the ordinary churchgoers they mingled with – were also fallen creatures in need of grace.

The young man had to admit that in any other circumstance he would not have befriended any of the persons who were part of this group of youth leaders. He had barely thought of himself as a leader of the youth or of any age group, having been thrust from one position to another. He had almost nothing in common with the others in terms of personal tastes or interests, having grown up in a similar milieu yet having avoided, as much as possible, what was denoted by the term popular culture. He was largely unaware of the references or allusions they made to popular Hollywood movies or popular American television shows, nor was he able to identify, never mind sing, any number of the ‘Top 40’ songs that played repeatedly on commercial radio stations. Although he had a similar upbringing to them as an Australian-Born Chinese (or ABC, to use the common abbreviation) and assumed the adopted country of his Southeast Asian parents as his natural habitat, it was as if he were a recalcitrant who had forgotten or refused to cede his private world to the public, popular realm of things. Whenever a reference or allusion was made to a thing of this realm, he was a little embarrassed that he did not know what thing was referred or alluded to, but the young man made no effort to learn of the thing, choosing instead to spend his time studying, playing tennis, or listening to jazz recordings.

While the young man was a youth leader, he also attended literature and philosophy classes for several days a week at the University of New South Wales. Almost none of the other students who attended these classes were youth group leaders, nor did the young man see them around at the Christian group on campus which hosted hour-long talks on Tuesday and Thursday in the large auditorium at the top of the hill. During these talks, a beleaguered Anglican chaplain who wore old metal-rimmed glasses would sometimes explain and dismiss various theories of history with diagrams drawn on a transparent slide on an overhead projector, contrasting for instance the dialectical materialism of Marx ( < ) to the linear progression of Jesus’ kingdom (—).There were other words projected on the diagrams, but the young man does not recall any of them; he only remembers that he was at a Christian conference primarily intended for undergraduates and the theme for the conference was eschatology. Despite five days of prayer meetings, Bible studies, seminars, and talks that were arranged on or around this theme, the young man would not be able to say afterwards what eschatology meant; but when the word was mentioned, he thought of the diagrams along with the word tension. Sometimes he saw a clock ticking at the eleventh hour, because a leader of one of his groups, who was known as a ministry training apprentice, had brought up the image while explaining the term. But most of the time the young man associated the theological term with the word tension, which he understood more precisely as a tension between what had happened when Jesus came, died, and rose from the dead, and his returning again to judge at the so-called second coming. This tension was encapsulated in the phrase now but not yet, a phrase the young man heard a great deal at the conference that was shorthand for the discrepancy that the kingdom was here but not completely, that Jesus had fulfilled the law and the prophets but had reserved some measure of fulfilment for his second visitation. The kingdom of God had already come, but in Sydney only a select group of Christians were aware of it.

For the four years that the young man was an undergraduate and a youth group leader, he attended the talks of this campus group each week during the semester as well as the mid-year conference during the winter semester break at a large rural property that went by the name Merroo. At the time the young man called himself a Christian even though he did not know whether he was a Christian. Many of the things he did passed for being a Christian: he went to church every week, taught Sunday school, read the Bible and prayed, attended Christian talks and conferences and Bible studies, even was part of a ten-day mission in Gerroa, a holiday spot south of Sydney, where he and a Christian friend would walk from caravan to caravan to strike up a conversation to share the Good News or befriend teenage children who, because of a spinal deformity or some other aberration, were usually treated as outcasts. One of his mentors at the university, a ministry apprentice who had finished a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, had asked him if he believed, and the young man had said that sometimes he wasn’t sure if he was a Christian, but if someone were to ask him, point-blank, whether he was a Christian, he would immediately say that he was. Maybe that was proof enough that he was a Christian, the young man had said, and his mentor seemed to agree.

Throughout his childhood, the young man would often pray a prayer of confession that was expressly written for non-Christians wishing to convert. Although the evangelistic speaker said that those who were already Christians could substitute the words of the prayer to fit their circumstances, the teenager always prayed the prayer as if for the first time. Why so? Because no matter how often the teenager hunched over his Bible in confession or repented while trying to sleep, he could not shake the feeling that all was not forgiven – or that if all was, in the very near future there would be more to forgive.

Sometime between finishing high school and the second year of university, the young man stopped praying the prayer for himself. The young man committed many of the same sins as he had as a teenager, but it seemed strange to pray the prayer as a youth leader. (Occasionally as a youth leader he gave evangelistic talks to teenagers and prayed the prayer aloud so they could whisper it in their hearts for the first time. In these instances, the young man did not so much pray the prayer as say the prayer for the sake of others.) He knew that since he was now a youth leader it would be inappropriate to pray the prayer, even privately. As serious as his sins were, he would have to be content with asking for ordinary forgiveness rather than being afforded the joys of committing his life (again) as a newly born Christian.

At this point in the narrative, the grown man could report that the young man who was a youth-group leader continued to give lessons, Sunday by Sunday, on certain passages of Scripture or a ‘relevant’ topic to the youth, as well as devise one or another skit that illustrated some point or message to be expounded in a Bible study or talk. Many of these skits, to use the term then, would draw on television shows that the young man hardly watched, but because his role was to minister to the youth, he found himself writing and performing scripts which aped the format of Australian Idol or another recent television import. Although he could not quote readily from The Simpsons or even dodge a footy tackle with ease, he could make use of his oratory skills, acquired at an early age, to captivate the youth. Whether it was true or not that he dressed, as his mother put it, like an old man, preferring his ribbed navy polo to a T-shirt emblazoned with FCUK, hardly anyone could deny his ability to act and, above all, speak. For when he mounted the pulpit to preach to the youths for the first time, many felt that he spoke with what the older leaders referred to as power.

In the years 2002 and 2003, the young man was asked to give more and more Bible talks at the monthly youth service on Sunday mornings. He was also asked to host twenty-first birthday parties and youth-group camps, where the adult participants of both kinds of gatherings were much the same. In the third or fourth year as an undergraduate in an arts and social sciences faculty, years which correspond to the ones just cited, the young man was asked to give a talk at a so-called evangelistic event for teenagers on a Saturday night in the medium-sized hall behind the main church building. Several hours before the talk, the young man was hitting a tennis ball on the side wall of his parents’ garage. The young man had not completed the talk, and thought by distracting himself with this game of mini-tennis that he would hit upon a good conclusion. The real difficulty, as he understood it, lay in coming up with a phrase that would encapsulate what had gone before and would serve, as it were, as a bridge to the concluding moment of the talk – leading, naturally, to a public prayer of conversion. The young man had learnt that such a phrase, as in Hollywood movies, ought to be mentioned throughout the talk in various contexts according to a certain beat, until the cumulative force of its repetition would result in a climactic revelation of sorts. And then the phrase, much like a magical talisman, would acquire a certain resonance in the listeners, and many of them would feel compelled, almost against their wills, to repeat in their hearts, as they were encouraged to do, the words of a prayer that was projected onto a white fabric screen.

As he continued to hit the ball against the wall or retrieve the ball from the backyard lawn or among the thin branches of the surrounding bushes, the young man began to realise that no resonant phrase would be forthcoming. Eventually the young man wrote something down, but when he looked at the words while he was preaching that night, he began to be aware of himself reading the script he had prepared. If up to this moment of the talk he had been preaching with the aid of a script, one could say that after this moment he had stopped preaching and begun simply reading. When the young man had paused near the end of the talk to look at the faces of one or several youths, he became aware of himself – that he was preaching to these youths – and when he returned his eyes to the part of the script he had written after hitting a tennis ball against a garage wall, he had lost most of his conviction.

After the talk one of the older youth-group leaders came up to the young man and thanked him for speaking, but the gratitude, if it could be called that, seemed forced. It was as if everyone had felt, but was perhaps unable to admit, that something apart from preaching had occurred. In one of the cards that all the youth filled out after the talk and the prayer, the young man read that some of the talk had come across as insincere and hollow. The youth who had written the comment was, as far as he knew, a Christian girl in her mid to late teens. When this comment was mentioned in the presence of several of his fellow leaders, most of them laughed it off; however insincere the delivery of the talk and the praying of the prayer, a few of the youths had nevertheless prayed the prayer for the first time. God was to be praised.

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