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What Would Jesus Do? Try this: The Songs of Jesse Adams

Book Review: The Songs of Jesse Adams, Peter McKinnon, Acorn 2014.

Songs of Jesse Adams


‘WWJD?’ has been a very popular slogan in Evangelical Christianity since the days of the Jesus People in the 60s/70s. Every Christian pastor has preached or counseled asking “If Jesus came to [our town] what would he be doing? Who would he be with (would he hang out with society’s riff-raff again?). What would he say about the evils and self-interest embedded at all levels in our country?”

Whilst we preachers mightn’t be too specific about some things (unless we’re ready for another Golgotha: still happens), here’s a novel – Peter’s first – which in 346 very readable pages tries to imagine Jesus and his followers in the 1960s/early 70s Melbourne and its environs.

Peter McKinnon is an interesting man. He’s produced two musicals; is au fait with the business-world; and he remembers ‘those days’ very well. (I knew him in the 1970s/early 80s: a multi-talented parishioner, a psychologist, and someone who cared enough about homeless people to be involved with our church’s ministry to them).

We who have ‘remember when’ conversations about Australian life and culture ‘back then’ will resonate with authentic descriptions on every page: three or four different brands of cigarettes (who recalls the Peter Stuyvesants?), Kingswoods, the paper-boy on his Malvern Star, trams (their ‘ding ding ding’ provides the music for a disciple’s betrayal), Flinders’ Street, Fitzroy, Carlton playing the Demons, a country town’s chook races, bodgies and bolshies, Albert Langer, Monash Maoists, Vietnam War protests, Kentucky Fried Chicken (the newest food sensation)… There are words/phrases/clichés I’ve not heard for decades: ‘You’ve been had’, galoots (remember that word?) and many more…

And if you went to Sunday School ‘back then’ (more of us did) you’ll enjoy spotting the Gospels’ equivalents of about 30 or 40 characters and events: Mary Magdalene, Jesus’ mother Mary, Peter, the rich young ruler (“it’s all or nothing Jarret”), the cleansing of the temple (done by Jesse in a Melbourne city church!), ‘lost and found’ stories, the ‘woman with five de factos, six including the last dropkick’, the Good Samaritan, one of the lyrics an interesting ‘take’ on the Lord’s Prayer, Judas, the Sadducees/ politicians, the Last Supper (in a pub, the ‘Doubtful’!), the mockery of a trial, the Emmaus-event, and many more…

But above all there are the constants in terms of human sinning (‘like a terminal cancer’): an inordinate preoccupation with earning, amassing and stealing money, institutional evil (police, government, church, media et al), widespread antipathy towards society’s scapegoats – homosexuals, ‘communists’, criminal gangs (they’re at the bottom and the top of our culture).

Peter’s writing-style is quite brilliant. How about this: ‘wearing a grin that would charm the stripes off a tiger’? He’s mostly restrained, sometimes oblique, until you get to the gripping page-turning denouement events towards the end. The build-up includes some dramatic events – as when Jesse hijacks a mayoral men-only function and invites the women to join them; or interrupts a State parliamentary sitting! Many of these scenarios are somewhat improbable. Exactly!

So here we have a bush-boy who becomes God-man, and whose message is clear: Love is all you need. Love wins no matter what life throws up. Happy is good; free is better. ‘I don’t want to own anything.’ And even ‘Peace for poofters’ (p. 238).

People from everywhere came just to hear this ‘stirrer from nowhere’ talk (as well as sing). ‘He was The Man’ (p.86), his era’s most charismatic pop-star, its greatest celebrity – a sort-of cross between the Beatles and Jesus. (I know someone born back then who says “If church can be as good as a U2 concert I’d be there every week!”). But Jesse is humble: “As for who’s the best – it’s the kid here. Big shots come last in my book” (p. 248). And like Jesus he needed to slip away occasionally to enjoy some solitude (he liked hotel roof-tops and similar places).

Ever thought about this: ‘How can a body go missing from a modern city’s morgue?’ Good question.

I can imagine church youth groups and reading clubs having a wonderful time with this book.


Rowland Croucher


July 2014


Another review (very well written, IMO) - http://www.eurekastreet.com.au/article.aspx?aeid=41902#.U_2xGMXa46Z

And an Australian theologian’s take on the book - http://www.tobefrank.com.au/fair-dinkum-theology-with-an-australian-accent/the-songs-of-jesse-adams-jesus-comes-to-sunbury/

And the Sydney Morning Herald:


Peter McKinnon

Acorn Press, $29.95

Adapting the story of Christ to 1960s Australia? The Songs of Jesse Adams is about as ambitious as it could be, and it’s a testament to Peter McKinnon’s storytelling that it doesn’t fall flat on its face from the outset. The author captures the spirit of the age of protest, the bridling at an unjust war and the revolution in popular music – through which the Jesus figure appears – with zest and there’s an understated Australian flavour in his adaptation, which brings to life King’s Cross and the inner suburbs of Melbourne (the garden of Gethsemane is reimagined, naturally enough, as a Carlton beer garden, for a start). There are, however, passages when the writing isn’t up to the emotional freight of the story, and a more complex act of creative transfiguration is needed to save it from seeming overwrought. Still, for the most part it’s an unusual and weirdly compelling read.

Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/in-short-fiction-20140829-109y0i.html#ixzz3Bqbd6eIR



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