Greg Sheridan, the foreign editor of the Australian newspaper, is best known for his shrewd analysis of our country and its relationship with the wider world. He’s also written a charming account of his youthful misadventures, When We Were Young and Foolish (in which I figure), and now two books about contemporary Christianity: the first, God is Good for You; and now this one, Christians: the Urgent Case for Jesus in our World. Why? Because he thinks that Christianity is the foundation of our culture and civilisation and worries that we will be spiritually impoverished and behaviourally adrift without a better understanding of the faith that’s shaped the way we live.
It’s hard to overstate the centrality of Christianity to the everyday life even of those who’ve hardly heard of it; or, indeed, positively rejected it. Far deeper than the folk festivals of Christmas and Easter, or even the parables that shape our response to so much around us, are the central concepts of equality and justice on which all our institutions rest. Our democracy is unimaginable without St. Paul’s ringing declaration: ‘There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female for you are all one in Christ Jesus’. Our legal system is unimaginable without the declaration in Matthew (echoed in the other Gospels): ‘So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets’.
Sheridan thinks that we ought to be at least as respectful to the foundations of our own culture as we are to those of others; and far more familiar with them. Even now, just over 50 per cent of us nominate ‘Christian’ to the Census (down from 90 per cent a few decades back) yet with the current national curriculum making far more references to indigenous spirituality than to Christianity, it’s easy to become an Australian adult today with only the vaguest understanding, little more than a comic book caricature, of what Christianity is and has meant to our forebears for two millennia.
Quite rightly, Sheridan deplores this shameful and dangerous cultural amnesia. But this book is only in passing a critique of society. Mostly, it’s a highly engaging and sometimes powerfully uplifting statement of personal faith and engagement with the faith of others.
He starts with a robust affirmation of the historical Jesus. Jesus really did exist and make the claims about divinity that were so startling then and almost preposterous now. How do we know? Because numerous other ancient sources refer to him. And because the New Testament writings are the eye-witness accounts of his life and teachings by those who were there; or by those whom they told. As Paul says, in his Letter to the Corinthians: ‘Christ died for our sins…was buried… was raised on the third day…and appeared to Peter, then to the 12, then to 500 brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive….’ Incredible at one level, yes; but accepted then, and later on faith, by people of undoubted character and integrity for over 1900 years.
The multitudinous ways in which Christianity has been tarnished by the failings of its professed adherents don’t faze Sheridan, because, after all, Christians have never claimed that their faith made them perfect; just that it made them better. And Christians’ un-matched, spectacular record of learning, art, and service sustained over the centuries deserves respect, surely; and should engender an appreciative curiosity, at least, towards the faith they lived and died for.
Sheridan’s book is both reproachful and encouraging. He’s pretty stern against those who’d prefer a Christianity more accommodating of human weakness and more in tune with the spirit of the age. Yet whether or not he set out to write a ‘how to’ manual for rekindling that elusive Christian spirit or for finding inspiration amidst all the clamour and distraction, that’s what he’s managed to do and that’s quite an achievement. The way this sometime fellow university wastrel, then knock-about scribbler, has come to produce a Christian guide and affirmation so beyond that to be found in most places of worship is a supreme credit to him and a testament to the wonder and power of faith.
Greg has a simple message, one that befits a now very seasoned journalist: if you want to know about something, go direct to the primary sources. Don’t read the critics on Christianity but read the real thing: the New Testament; and not once either, but again and again, not necessarily in a spirit of prayer, but simply as great stories that offer further insights with each reading.
To me, the most absorbing sections of the book are where Greg delves into the Christian inspiration and parallels still present in much of our best modern literature. There’s Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, whose personal struggles and Christian influence are reflected in novels such as The End of the Affair, The Heart of the Matter, Brideshead Revisited and the Sword of Honour trilogy. There’s J.R.R. Tolkien and the incomparable Lord of the Rings epic where Frodo is undoubtedly a Christ-like figure. Greg’s moving account of the life and work of the Australian teacher, Gemma Sisia, and St. Jude’s School in Tanzania that she founded, testifies that faith really can move mountains. Likewise, his account of Frances Cantrall and the Culture Project to raise young people’s horizons to the virtue beyond shallow hedonism.
If ‘the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church’, as the Jesuits used to tell their charges, it’s not surprising that the current soft persecution has produced something of a revival of Christianity even in the decadent West. Those forms of Christianity, whether ‘contemporary’ and Pentecostal or ‘traditional’ and Tridentine, that still demand something of their adherents seem to be flourishing oases in the desert. I doubt there’s much ground for optimism though. A country that closes churches in the midst of a pandemic doesn’t think much of religion. Jesus’ promise to Peter: ‘upon this rock I shall build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it’ looks more tenuous than ever. What can a flawed believer do? Resolve again, with Paul, to ‘fight the good fight, stay the course and keep the faith’; while accepting with Jesus in Gethsemane, ‘not my will, but thy will be done’.
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