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A cartoon history of religion in New Zealand

November 15th, 2019 By Hannah Benbow

In July, Associate Professor Mike Grimshaw gave a talk to mark the publication of his new book, Bishops, Boozers, Brethren and Burkas: A cartoon history of religion in New Zealand. Mike has kindly agreed to let us reproduce a version of the popular talk here.

Associate Professor Mike Grimshaw in July giving a talk at the Library standing behind a lecturn, to mark the publication of his new book.
Associate Professor Mike Grimshaw in July giving a talk at the Library to mark the publication of his new book, Bishops, Boozers, Brethren and Burkas: A cartoon history of religion in New Zealand.

I was born into a house of religion, sport, books and newspapers. It is fitting my book is being launched here at the National Library because it was a Chief Librarian, Jim Traue who published a little pamphlet in 1998 entitled Ancestors of the mind: a Pākehā whakapapa.

My interest in what Traue discusses goes back to doing one of the earliest New Zealand Studies courses, at Otago University in the late 1980s, and was centralised over twenty five years ago by a question posed by a friend of mine, the Tuhoe Kaumatua Rev Sonny Ngatai Te Hiko O Te Rangi Riini who, as well as having acting as Kaumatua for the Auckland College of Education, acted in this capacity for Knox Theological Hall in Dunedin where I was then undertaking postgraduate study. Following a seminar on biculturalism in which both me and Sonny were trying to explain to conservative white Presbyterians why biculturalism was necessary, he turned to me and said the following which I have never forgotten:

“Boy, you know how we hear all this talk about bi-culturalism and identity? Well the trouble is you buggers. We (Māori) know who we are and so we’ve got something to say. But you buggers haven’t. You (Pākehā) need to go away and work out who you are and then come and talk with us about biculturalism. We can’t tell you who you are - and the problem is neither can you.”

Since then I have spent over twenty years working and publishing in the fraught but fascinating area of Pākehā identity, history and culture, attempting to get my students, where I can, to understand that in order to be bicultural one also has to understand what it means to be Pākehā.

I have made great use of that pamphlet over the years, getting students, Pākehā and Māori, to consider those ancestors of the mind that have given rise to where and how they find themselves today. Perhaps what I am doing here in this book is combination of ancestors of the mind and, what could be termed, ancestors of the pen.

I have always found editorial cartoons an important and fascinating insight into my cultural and intellectual whakapapa and a way to rethink and be challenged by the past as it was presented to that mythical entity – the general public.

So how did this come to be?

In a statement you don’t hear every day, part of my cultural and intellectual whakapapa was the Otago Daily Times – the ODT – or as it was known when I was a student, “the oddity”.

However, the ODT was a daily presence in the Queenstown Presbyterian manse in the early 1970s and it was there I can first remember the editorial cartoon, these cartoons were by Sid Scales and often took the form of a number of smaller comments within the larger cartoon. There was also the Listener in its largescale format and in it were cartoons. These were the minimalist Bogor cartoons by Burton Silver and more influential upon me there was Tom Scott. His cartoons were different in line and politics and accompanied articles. But already it was evident that cartons were important in some way – they were in the newspaper and the Listener (those twin bastions of 1970s life).

I seem to have got my interest in cartoons from my father because he always had collections of cartoons on his shelves, perhaps most influentially the Giles cartoon annuals. These Giles cartoons – and other collections – gave a me access to that wider cultural whakapapa of British editorial cartooning, I also remember a collection of David Lodge’s cartoons that provided an accessible way into 20th century history – even if it meant asking lots of questions as to who and what was portrayed.

Then in 1981, my father bought the first edition of Ian F. Grant’s The Unauthorized Version. A Cartoon History of New Zealand. Upon first reading it, suddenly those cartoons I had always read in the newspapers (the ODT and then, the Press) and the Listener had a back-history – as did New Zealand: a cartoon, irreverent, satirical, questioning back-history that even in my teenage years made me think about cartoons and New Zealand in new ways. I began to read books of cartoons either borrowed from the public libraries or picked up at second-hand book sales. Later I started collecting cartoons, realizing that cartoons provide another way to rethink our history and our society.

And yet, over the last couple of years as I worked towards this book, I realised that I hardly ever see editorial cartoons these days. Like so many I have migrated from the physical newspapers to the online news-sites and online I never get cartoons on my front-page news scroll. Perhaps I need to work to change my analytics, but I suspect that like so many other online news readers, editorial cartoons no longer exist – except when I deliberately go searching for them. I asked colleagues in sociology and political science whether they too had realised they were missing editorial cartoons – and they hadn’t – until I mentioned it. I know the cartoons exist, but somehow they quickly faded from my everyday – and this, I realise, is what has happened with religion for so many. They do not realise it is not there, until they are forced to think about it. Yet both religion and editorial cartoons continue to exist – but both do so as a decreasing presence in the lives of many New Zealanders.

Is this a problem? Speaking sociologically it is, for both religion and editorial cartoons help a society create, critique and challenge social norms, providing tools to interpret life and society. In the case of cartoons, as Chris Lamb concluded in his study of American editorial cartoons, editorial cartoonists “have the talent, courage and self-respect to make a difference in a country that depends on social criticism because as artists, satirists, and commentators, editorial cartoonists make a unique and invaluable contribution to society.”(1) New Zealand’s editorial cartoonists do likewise – as this collection demonstrates. To see society and religion satirized, commented and critiqued by our editorial cartoonists not only enables us to view our history and society in a new way, it should also provoke us into thinking about it in new ways as well.

This book took a long time to get to this point; the original conference paper that started this off was given in 2007. I met with [publisher and New Zealand Cartoon and Comics Archive founder Ian F Grant] in 2010 and then, fittingly, what in insurance terms is called an act of god occurred. Or rather thousands of them. Of course, we know from Brain Tamaki what really caused the Christchurch quakes.

Tom Scott, [Brian Tamaki], Dominion Post, 19 November 2016
Tom Scott, (Brian Tamaki), Dominion Post, 19 November 2016. Ref: DCDL-0035185

Having finally got through the quakes, the rebuild, and the restructuring of the University I was able to return to this project. Then in March this year, I was sitting in my office at work on the final stages of the book when my PhD student Ben Elley, who is doing a thesis on the online self-radicalisation of the alt–right, burst into my office saying ‘something is bad is going down’. We jumped onto the website 4chan- where a lot of the material of the alt-right circulates - and suddenly were confronted by a video I will never forget. It is too early to really think through the full background and implications of what happened, but I did find and post this Guy Body cartoon on my office door.

Digital cartoon by Guy Body on social and political issues in New Zealand.
Guy Body, (Online hate), New Zealand Herald, 18 March 2019. Ref: DCDL-0039191

I want to go back to an ancient anti-Christian cartoon graffitied on the wall of the Palatine in Rome. The roughly inscribed image presents a crucified figure with the head of an ass. There is another figure presented to the right with an arm upstretched in homage. Beneath this are scratched words translated as “Alexamenos worships his god”. (2) The meaning is clear, existing through the interplay of text and image: in worshipping their ass-headed god, Christians themselves are asses. From a theological viewpoint this could be read as what Paul referred to in Galatians 5:11 as “the offence of the cross”. In crossing time and space to this contemporary discussion of New Zealand religious cartoons we are struck by a remarkable consistency. Presented in the public space of the editorial page of a newspaper, the cartoon becomes a means whereby the offence of the cross, or more often, the offence of particular Christian claims, actions and personalities becomes subject to public critique, ridicule and challenge. ‘Alexamenos’ finds little public support in New Zealand when he intrudes into public life.

Mike Grimshaw delivering his talk about his new book, 'Bishops Boozers Brethren And Burkas'

The famous New Zealand cartoonist Sir Gordon Minhinnick described cartoons as “an act of protest”, as “a negative conception…usually against some thing or somebody.” (3) Cartoons, and especially editorial cartoons, are therefore the language of protest, the language often of a type of carnivalistic puritan opposition to that which challenges the sensibilities of the cartoonists and their intended audience.

In a fascinating way, the response of our cartoonist to religion is often remarkably similar in sentiment if not content to the anti-Catholic illustrations of the Reformation – whether it is the devil shitting out monks or the presentation of Jesuits as swine.

An important element of the editorial cartoon is that it demands that a choice be made, that a particular position be expressed. In his study of editorial cartoons, Chris Lamb quotes the American triple Pulitzer prize-winning cartoonist Jeff MacNelly: “Cartoonists violate every rule of ethical journalism…They misquote, trifle with the truth, make science fiction out of politics and sometimes should be held for personal libel. But when the smoke clears, the editiorial cartoonist has been getting closer to the truth than the guys who wrote political opinion”. (4) Or, as in the case of what the cartoons in this book show, the editorial cartoonist is often closer to the truth than the folk who write the secular and religious history and sociology of this country. For example, as in this cartoon by Bob Brockie on the impact of prescription charges (and there is another book to be written on the way that the National Business Review had its own cuckoo in the nest in the 1980s and 1900s with its editorial cartoons critiquing the neoliberal reforms – often as forms as monetarist religion).

Bob Brockie, Prescription charges skyrocket today, NBR, 1 February 1991
Bob Brockie, Prescription charges skyrocket today, NBR, 1 February 1991

Another background of this book occurred when I did my PhD on how settlers viewed the missionaries during the New Zealand wars of the 1860s. I spent a year here in the ATL in the early 1990s, reading newspapers, journals, parliamentary records- and discovering cartoons. New Zealand is, as we have to continually remind the religious, a country without a state or official religion. Yet is it, was it ever, a country of religious freedom?

In the 1860s there were very clear views expressed as to the limits of missionary involvement in politics. And suspicion of the material greed of churches predates Brian Tamaki by over a century – whether it is critiques of Anglican church land grabs for the 1890s or suspicion of the material aims of clergy as critiqued in the left-wing journal Tomorrow in the 1930s.

Another concern was the fear that the churches wished to limit the enjoyment of everyday life – and that Australian invention, the wowser, soon crossed the Tasman in about 1911 during the poll on prohibition. As the writer and poet A.R.D. Fairburn declared in his essay “The Wowser in the Woodpile” (1955) the wowsers “are not in the least ashamed to impose their private prejudices on other people to the limit that is within their power”. (5) He concluded with a statement that summed up the opposition to the wowser that was as true then in 1955 as it was in 1911 or 2019: “A very good way to make life completely impossible in New Zealand would be for all for us to join crusades to prevent other people from doing things we ourselves have no desire to do.”

There is of course a constant concern of religion entering New Zealand politics – and the ways it has are interesting. In the 1970s there were the Jesus freaks and Marches for Jesus. One of the organizers, Gordon Copeland, ended up a United Future MP (the Future side of United Future linked to the Rock evangelical church in wellington) – before linking with the Destiny Party in 2007.

Eric Heath, “I think it’s a new religion they’re on about”, Dominion, 9 October 1973
Eric Heath, “I think it’s a new religion they’re on about”, Dominion, 9 October 1973

There was also the earlier attempt of the ill-fated Clergy for Rowling in 1975 – which – along with Citizens for Rowling, was confronted by Rugbymen for Rob and the infamous statement of Fergie Mccormick that “Rob is a bit of a dictator but New Zealand needs to run firmly”.

Muldoon, that adult convert to the Baptists (and later, to the Anglicans), yet close associate of conservative Catholics- especially on abortion, was also very keen that churches and clergy should know their place – which was certainly not opposing the government- as the Christian based aid organization Corso found out.

Muldoon’s attitude reflected a great heartland of New Zealand opinion and in my view still does today. Perhaps never more clearly than as captured in this cartoon by Tom Scott from 1977 when Muldoon appeared on Bob Lowe’s TV show Open Pulpit.

Tom Scott, “I don’t make trouble for God …”, Listener, 24 December 1977
Tom Scott, “I don’t make trouble for God …”, Listener, 24 December 1977

So what type of religious views are acceptable in New Zealand? One interesting case is the way that heretic of the 1960s, Lloyd Geering, found himself moving to the centre of what can be termed a post-Christian religious orthodoxy of religious questioning and debate. As Hubbard deftly shows, it is now the clergy who are out of step and viewed as anti-modern; Geering the one-time heretic is now rewarded for his views and questions.

Jim Hubbard, “Harrumph! Geering! It’s Heresy”, Dominion Post, 30 December 2006
Jim Hubbard, “Harrumph! Geering! It’s Heresy”, Dominion Post, 30 December 2006

So do we find ourselves where our cartoonists portray religion as a type of curate’s egg? By this I mean, does it depend on what type of religion and spirituality we are confronted with as to how we respond?

I started this talk by referring to the Pākehā whakapapa – and one of the questions I wrestle with in the book is what is Pākehā religion today. There is the discussion of sport- and yes, as I have also written elsewhere, rugby is a religion in New Zealand - but what I want to finish with is perhaps one of the most telling cartoons to focus on Pākehā religion and spirituality. For as the great German- American theologian Paul Tillich noted “As religion is the substance of culture, culture is the form of religion”. Yet what is often forgotten or perhaps even deliberately excluded, is the equally important statement that precedes this: “The relationship between religion and culture must be defined from both sides of the boundary”.

And here Bob Brockie’s Te Pākehā cartoon – in reference to the Te Māori exhibition takes us back to where we began. For unless we buggers know who we are- and that centrally includes the questions of religion and culture – we can never really begin to undertake that bicultural conversation.

Bob Brockie, “And now … Te Pakeha! [sic]”, National Business Review, 22 August 1986.


  1. Chris Lamb, Drawn To Extremes. The Use and Abuse of Editorial Cartoons (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), pp.237-238. ^
  2. I first came across this in Jean Danielou, ‘Christianity as a Missionary Religion’ in Arnold Toynbee ed., The Crucible of Christianity: Judaism, Hellenism and the Historical Background to the Christian Faith (London, Thames & Hudson, 1969, p.295). There are thousands of easily accessible internet sites that present and discuss this graffito. ^
  3. Sir Gordon Minhinnick, ‘Introduction’ in Ian F Grant, The Unauthorized Version. A Cartoon History of New Zealand, (Auckland, 1980, [revised edition 1987]), p.2. ^
  4. Jeff MacNelly in Chris Lamb, Drawn to Extremes. The use and abuse of editorial cartoons (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), p42. ^
  5. A.R. D. Fairburn, ‘The Wowser in the Woodpile’ in A.R.D. Fairburn, The Woman Problem & other prose (Auckland: Blackwood & Janet Paul Ltd, 1967), 50-55, p.51. [originally Here & Now, 1955) ^

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