Greg Sheridan - "Christians"

A Review of Greg Sheridan’s ‘Christians: The Urgent Case for Jesus in Our World’

25 August 2021

7 MINS

Australia’s beloved foreign affairs journalist Greg Sheridan has written his second book on God and his message is clear: Jesus is still the hope of our world.

The way to be the very best at what you do, says The Australian’s Greg Sheridan, is to enter a field in which there are no other participants. This is how he explains the success of his recent writings on God: Sheridan is the only ‘secular’ journalist in Australia to countenance the topic. And he does so with flair, sensitivity and clear-minded purpose.

 

Released this month, Christians: The Urgent Case for Jesus in Our World is Sheridan’s eighth published work and his second book about Christianity, following 2018’s popular God is Good for You. In Christians, Sheridan’s aim is to present “the living Jesus from the Gospels, the complex, extraordinary figure who changed all of history by changing the lives of the people closest to him.”[1]

The book’s title is apt. Sheridan introduces us to the friends of Jesus — in Part 1, his original band of friends; and in Part 2, a variety of Jesus’ friends who are alive today. His style is relaxed and conversational, but full of conviction. Sheridan is at once an inquisitive journalist; a relatable, fair dinkum Aussie; and a man of deep empathy. These qualities bleed through every page.

Christians is honest about our culture’s hostility to Christianity, yet it presents a good case that followers of Jesus in fact make exemplary citizens, neighbours and leaders, despite their many human failings. “There’s no excuse for Christians to stop trying their best, in their own lives and in public leadership,” he will conclude by book’s end.[2]

Perhaps the greatest strength of Christians is its approachability for the secular reader. Though believers get to eavesdrop, Sheridan is not writing to or for Christians particularly: his heart clearly beats for the yet-to-be-convinced. Theological jargon has been stripped away, allowing the theology Sheridan presents to simply ring true. What he writes about God would pass the proverbial ‘pub test’ for most Australians who pick up this book.

Echoing the non-sectarianism of Australia’s longest-serving Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies, or the ‘mere Christianity’ of C.S. Lewis, Greg Sheridan presents a winsome, creedal Christianity that people of any mainline denomination should recognise. He is unapologetically Catholic and yet impressively, at least half of his interviewees are non-Catholics. Sheridan’s familiarity with and affection for believers of other backgrounds — Pentecostals especially — exemplifies the kind of spirited generosity that made the first-century church so attractive to outsiders.

The Original Friends of Jesus

“Western culture has been doing the best to kill God for a couple of hundred years,” Sheridan begins in the first chapter of Part 1: Jesus and His First Friends. “It should know that this has been done once already.”[3] Thus begins a confronting account of Jesus’ death, in which Sheridan — intentionally or otherwise — plays the role of foreign affairs editor, relaying the events of heaven to the citizens of earth. His insights into both ancient and contemporary culture, and his dual focus on Jesus’ divinity and humanity, make this a must-read account of history’s central event.

In chapter two, Jesus is history, living and true, we get to know Jesus’ first-century friends better, while considering contemporary scholarship on the Gospels. It is obvious that Sheridan has read widely on this front, but he still manages to tread lightly and avoid getting bogged down in academic tedium. He masterfully surveys the last two centuries of New Testament critique and can still confidently declare that “the pendulum of scholarship has swung back to regarding the Gospels as history based on the testimony of eyewitnesses.”[4]

Emblematic of Sheridan’s ability to connect Jesus’ world with ours is the third chapter and its title, The Jesus you meet in John, and the Jesus Kanishka met there. Here we meet people from every rung of society: Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman at the well, Joseph of Arimathea, the woman caught in adultery, and many others whose lives Jesus transformed. “Jesus always loved the poor, but he didn’t despise the rich,” Sheridan summarises, “abolish[ing] all social hierarchies”.[5]

The eternal life that Jesus offered these people in John, we learn, is precisely what captured Reverend Kanishka Raffel, Sydney’s new Anglican Archbishop, who grew up a Buddhist. The story of Kanishka’s conversion to Christ will wow secular and believing reader alike. Without saying it explicitly, Sheridan’s message is clear enough: read the Gospel of John — it will transform you, too.

The inclusion of a chapter on Mary by a Catholic is no surprise, nor is Sheridan’s apologetic for the Catholic view of Mary. What all readers can like about chapter four, however, is its very human treatment of Mary, with practical lessons that each of us can apply. More than a theology of Mary and her life, this is an account of the coming of age of Jesus through Mary’s eyes. “She was both his mother and his follower,” Sheridan affirms,[6] while Jesus himself “was obedient to Mary and Joseph. And he was God.”[7]

The fifth chapter, Angels at my shoulder, likewise rises above denominational commitments. Here Sheridan makes the case not only for angels but for a supernatural view of the world, one that our secular culture is sorely missing. “There are nearly 300 angelic episodes and explanations across the Bible,” he affirms. “If you don’t believe in angels or miracles, your Bible would be a pretty thin volume indeed.”[8] Exploring many such encounters, Sheridan clarifies that while superstition amplifies the spirit world, Christianity places it where it belongs: “under the dominion of God”.[9]

Paul the Apostle, Christ’s Lenin takes us on a journey through the three worlds Paul inhabited: Jewish monotheism, Greek rationality, and Roman globalism. Here we learn just how profoundly Paul’s encounter with Christ, his thinking, and his revolutionary missionary activity has shaped the modern world. Paul’s theology, which dissolved all boundaries between race, gender and social class (Galatians 3:28), ultimately gave rise to the West’s universalist categories, our concept of the individual, and our special care for the vulnerable.

The Contemporary Friends of Jesus

Sheridan shines in chapter seven. Smuggling Christ into popular culture is a comprehensive survey of the positive portrayals of Christianity in modern film, literature and television. He acknowledges that God is often ignored or misrepresented today, and this is not helped by the shallow ‘moral therapeutic deism’ promoted in many churches.

But when Christian themes do break through into the mainstream, it is due to both the courage of Christian artists, and the exemplary lives of believers that lend themselves to positive artistic portrayals. “Popular culture needs the presence of Christ,” writes Sheridan. “Christians only need to tell their stories well.”[10]

“Having met many remarkable Christians, I’ve found that there is no one, set way that Christian faith expresses itself, except that it always involves love and selflessness.”[11] This is how Sheridan summarises the lives of the three culturally transformational missionaries he introduces us to in chapter eight, Christians who keep giving.

We meet the director of a school for the underprivileged in Tanzania, the co-founder of a Sydney mission reaching the young and downcast, and the head of an organisation promoting workplace mental wellbeing, all of them women.

Light, and shadow, in the hearts of leaders, is Sheridan’s title for chapter nine, in which we meet four Christians who entered public life serving with the Liberals, Nationals, Labor, and as an independent. Here appears the best storytelling in Sheridan’s book, as we learn about Scott Morrison’s conversion and he and Jenny’s early struggles with fertility; and venture out to John Anderson’s farming estate and hear of a childhood accident that permanently marked his life. These fascinating stories alone are worth the price of the book.

In chapter ten, The Great Wall of Heaven, and chapter eleven, If God is not Chinese, he’s not God, the focus shifts to our great northern neighbour where Sheridan estimates 70 to 120 million Christians now reside. Both the sheer scale of the church in China and the courage of its members in the face of communism and compromise provide a much-needed corrective for Western Christians facing far lesser challenges. Sheridan’s clear-sightedness about the fundamental clash between Marxism and Christianity is refreshing, as is his hopeful hint that the race is on for the church to change China from within before China can change the world.

In these and the final chapter, New mission, new fire: Christian leaders, the range of people Sheridan interviews is both impressive and inspiring — from an underground believer, to a Singaporean politician, and a Latino Pentecostal preacher and filmmaker. In a parched land, green shoots of revival are everywhere, he suggests, if only we can see them:

Christianity has probably never been weaker institutionally in the West than it is now, certainly not for hundreds of years. Yet these are typically the moments when Christianity does the most surprising things, the most extraordinary things.[12]

A Book to Pass On

While Christians has more of a laid-back tone than the word ‘urgent’ in the subtitle suggests, it is a book that must urgently be read. Westerners need to understand what made them who they are, what can sustain and renew our weary civilisation, and that most of what they hear about Jesus and his friends from secular voices falls far short of the beautiful reality.

To raise a sole critique of the book, both Sheridan and the Prime Minister in his interview seek to draw a hard line between their faith and their politics. “Faith [has] got nothing to do with politics,” says Morrison — a statement Sheridan softens by explaining that faith does not and should not dictate specific policies, even if it shapes the values one brings to politics.[13]

As I have argued elsewhere, the idea that one’s philosophy of life — religious or otherwise — doesn’t influence their specific political activity, is a secular myth. Rather than seeking to defend the indefensible, Christians do well to own this, for it is one of our strengths. Just ask Bonhoeffer or Wilberforce.

A book of practical Christian philosophy and thrilling real-life stories, Christians is the book to pass on to unbelieving friends and family who have tuned out of fuddy-duddy religion but are open to the wisdom of Jesus and in need of hope like the rest of us. Sheridan is right: even as the night grows darker, there is plenty of Jesus to see in contemporary culture. And in any case, it’s always darkest before the dawn.

~~~

[1] Greg Sheridan, Christians: The Urgent Case for Jesus in Our World (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2021), p. 1.
[2] Ibid, p. 351.
[3] Ibid, p. 9.
[4] Ibid, p. 41.
[5] Ibid, p. 86.
[6] Ibid, p. 127.
[7] Ibid, p. 120.
[8] Ibid, p. 134.
[9] Ibid, p. 136.
[10] Ibid, p. 209.
[11] Ibid, p. 214.
[12] Ibid, pp. 352-3.
[13] Ibid, pp. 252-3.

[Photo: Abhisit Vejjajiva/Wikimedia Commons]

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