The Daily Declaration recently interviewed Greg Sheridan about his new book, and the opportunities and challenges Christians face as we present Jesus to a rapidly changing world.
Recently I wrote a book review of Christians: The Urgent Case for Jesus in Our World by well-known journalist Greg Sheridan. I described his book as an Australian answer to C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. In it, he presents a winsome, creedal Christianity that people of any mainline denomination should recognise, even as his Catholic influences are there to be seen.
I also had the opportunity to sit down and speak with Greg about his new book and some of its major themes. We spoke about the urgent need for Jesus in our world, the challenges of a rising tide of cultural Marxism, and how Christians can best reach the culture with the timeless message of God’s mercy and love.
The following is an abbreviated transcript that captures the essence of the fascinating conversation we had.
Kurt: How has the reception of Christians been so far?
Greg: I’ve been happy with the reception at two levels. I tried not to adjudicate between denominations. Pentecostals and Benedictine monks use the same Bible verses but apply them in different cultural forms, whether modern rock songs or chants and contemplative prayer. I tried to operate from that 99 per cent that all orthodox Christians more or less agree on, and I’ve been thrilled that the Christian response to it has been very warm.
The reaction from non-believers has been generally friendly too. We ran a few extracts from it in the paper and there were a few grumpy atheists who responded with quite antique responses that indicated popular prejudice—things that no contemporary Bible scholar would say. But it’s nice that they have taken the effort to write in. That’s been a minor part of the reaction, though.
I’m sometimes critical of the ABC but I’ve had a number of fantastic discussions on the ABC about the book with both believers and non-believers. One of these was a fabulous conversation with Richard Glover, who is a conscientious atheist. I also had a very interesting discussion with Andrew West on the Religion and Ethics program, and he’s a believing Christian.
It’s thrilling when people want to read a book that you write and can bother doing so. When you write a book you have a terrible crisis of confidence right before you publish, and you think, “Why would anybody read this? Not a single person is gong to have the slightest interest in it.” You’re almost inclined to go out and buy six copies at six different bookshops. But then it’s thrilling to find if some people are enjoying it after all.
Kurt: What makes the need for Jesus so urgent in our world right now?
Greg: The culture has whited out Christianity—not entirely, but substantially. Young people are going through their education and never hearing of Christianity. We have these sublime and magnificent books in the Bible, which—even if you have no religious belief—they deserve to be read as literature, history, philosophy and theology. But nobody’s hearing anything about them. So it’s urgent for us to tell the culture, “Here’s Jesus, isn’t this exciting!” It’s the best story of humanity.
The need for Jesus is also urgent because people always have an urgent need for the truth. People deserve to hear the truth—and Jesus Christ is the truth. You can’t really have any minor truth unless you have an absolute truth. You need God to have truth because, without Him, all truth is relative, which means nothing is really true. Being a Christian gives you the freedom to say that the truth is true. It’s a tremendous liberation.
Our culture has not only whited Christianity out but it’s also going a bit crazy. Its harshness on the internet, its crazy identity politics on the Left, its crazy nationalism on the Right. When you remove the transcendent, the culture goes crazy. But as Christians, we’ve got the medicine, and we can say to people, “The medicine is right here, it’s waiting for you. All you have to do is pick it up.”
Kurt: How did we reach a point where the case for Jesus is once again so urgent?
Greg: You can trace the long-term answers to this right back to the Renaissance and a misinterpretation of the Enlightenment: the idea that rational thought was opposed to Christianity. In fact, Christianity is the basis for rational thought.
Following this, the Scientific Revolution led people to have a vainglorious idea that they could explain everything, that they didn’t need any divine help. Then you had the wars of religion, and then the wars of the 20th century. Last century’s wars weren’t religious but nonetheless, people said after the Holocaust, “Where is God? How can God be silent in the face of the Holocaust?” These are some of the long-term causes.
I’m actually a bit more attracted to the short-term explanations. For many reasons in the 20th century, a species of Marxism became quite intellectually dominant at universities. Even if people have given up formal Marxism today, we still have the bastard children of Marxism, such as postmodernism.
Embedded in all of these ideologies is a hatred of Western civilisation. To be sure, Christianity is a universal religion, open to everybody. And most Christians today are not Westerners. But it is also the case historically that Western civilisation grew out of Christianity and the Judeo-Christian tradition. So if you come to hate Western civilisation, you often hate Christianity as an associated criminal. That’s a very popular view in the Western academy.
No other culture hates itself in this way. You don’t find Chinese universities preaching that Chinese civilisation is the most evil and destructive thing in the world. You won’t find any Islamic society doing that either. But in the West, our universities preach that.
There are a couple of other specific things. One is our long experience of affluence. Every human being needs the mercy of God. But if you enjoy good health, and if you hide death away, and if you are very affluent for a long time, you can succumb to a temptation: the illusion that you don’t need God’s mercy, and that you don’t need God.
Finally, the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s and its industrial scale of pornography created a culture that is very disturbing to human flourishing. This militates against normal human living. It’s not prudish to find this disturbing. It’s good to see the #MeToo movement arrive at the blinding insight that pornography degrades women. It’s good they finally got there, even if it took 100 years! All of these things have combined to create a culture which is quite strikingly anti-Christian.
Christianity has confronted hostile cultures before. Particularly 2,000 years ago, the Roman culture was very similar to ours: hyper-sexualised, power-driven, and anti-transcendent. But Christianity supplanted paganism and converted it. So we’ve got our work cut out for us just like the early Christians did.
Kurt: In your book, you make the case that Marxism and Christianity are incompatible. As we see the rise of cultural Marxism, what implications will this have for civil liberties in the West—and what does Christianity have to say about this?
Greg: We’re not persecuted like, say, the church in say China. But even if we consider the church there, it has grown to some 60-120 million Christians in the most difficult circumstances you can imagine. So there is hope for us even if things get harder.
Marxism and Christianity are utterly incompatible. In fact, I think Marxism—or more specifically, Communism—is correctly seen as a religion. It is notionally atheist, but in effect, it’s like the old Roman Empire. It makes deities of the Communist Party Generals. Chairman Mao became a deity, and Xi Jinping has become a deity. There were Chinese villagers that used to say prayers to Mao. Communism has its sacred scriptures.
Intellectually, Marxism utterly rejects Christianity—not just because it’s atheistic but because it’s all about power. It wants power for its own vision of life. It sees Christianity as a competing plausibility structure. So part of the task of the Chinese Communist Party is to provide a total explanation of life, and to provide existential purpose for individual citizens: the advancement of the party, the advancement of the nation, and the completion of the proletarian revolution.
The second-rate Marxist offspring we’re dealing with in the West has similar ambitions: to provide a total explanation of life. It too has removed the transcendent. It doesn’t accept the legitimacy of the idea of God, or any transcendent history or tale of human purpose. It tries to find existential meaning in ideological formulations, whether identity politics, gender politics, or something else.
It is also extremely intolerant of anyone who disagrees. This has begun to express itself in intolerance for Christians. Christian schools now suffer legal harassment if they try to hire Christian teachers; Christian adoption agencies are not allowed to operate on the basis of traditional Christian marriage. There are growing efforts to even censor ‘discriminatory’ speech like in the case of Archbishop Julian Porteous.
This is the shape of things to come if we are not careful. We should be insistent on our minority rights—not for us, but to protect minority rights for the truth. Because if you can’t teach traditional Christian teachings, that is a tremendous curtailment of civil liberties, and it’s a tremendous imposition against the truth. And we need to be defenders of the truth.
Kurt: You spoke of the ‘bastard children of Marxism’. How can Christians address these ideas, given that they are such a challenge to the church?
Greg: I wouldn’t prescribe one approach over another. It depends on your context and your own inclinations. As a journalist, I’m a happy warrior. I don’t mind getting into controversy at all. I’m very happy to take blows and deliver them. The rough and tumble of politics and ideological conflict doesn’t phase me. When I was younger I went to lots of war zones. I’m not somebody who finds conflict distressing or debilitating. If you spend long enough in it, it’s quite okay.
But for someone who is not used to getting beat up in the media, it can be a very distressing experience. The first time it happens, you wonder, “Why are people saying all these things? That’s not true. That’s not fair.” Some will adapt to this and some won’t—but there’s plenty of room and necessity for happy warriors across all of the cultural issues.
In Christians, I’ve wanted to argue a positive case, not a negative case. And I’ve wanted to argue from first principles. Christianity completely transcends the culture wars. Yes, there are some positions in the culture wars that are completely incompatible with Christianity. You can be centre-left or centre-right in your politics and still be a good Christian. It’s not a sin to disagree with me about any political issue. There is no divine warrant in any of my political opinions. They’re just my best effort at discerning the truth. But the transcendent truth of Christianity is beyond all that.
How can Christians respond to these things? Some Christians should be culture warriors and some Christians should be seraphically spiritual. There are some things where you can’t avoid being a controversialist.
When I was on QandA, Peter Singer was arguing that handicapped children whose parents don’t want them should be left to die because they have less utility than sentient mammals like dogs, cats and chimpanzees. I was arguing that that was wrong. Peter Singer is a good man—I’m not making any personal attacks against him. He’s a very important philosopher. But he asked me, “What are you saying to me Greg? Just because they’re members of our species they should be kept alive?” And I answered, “Yes, that is absolutely what I’m saying. Because they are human beings, they have inherent, undeniable, uncompromisable human dignity which we have to respect and support at every stage of their life.”
That’s an example of something on which Christians cannot compromise. We cannot always avoid the culture wars. In terms of the balance between confronting things that are bad in the culture and just preaching the positive virtues of Christianity, I think that’s for every Christian to decide for themselves.
But I do think we have some key principles. We need to be kinder than our enemies. We should be good-humoured. Humour itself is a wonderful thing, as much as you can use it. We need to be as tough and clever as our opponents but remain good-humoured about it all.
Kurt: How did you become friends with Jesus? And have you grown in your faith in the process of writing more about Christianity?
Greg: I’m very happy to answer the question though I’m not that comfortable talking about myself. A technique of journalism is to write yourself into the narrative a bit. You’ve got to remove yourself from the centre but you’ve got to personalise things and offer a bit of yourself to relate to the reader. Any Christian is preaching Jesus, they’re not preaching themselves. Hopefully, they model Jesus and someone sees the good in their lives as a result.
I had the good fortune to be born into a Christian family. I’ve always believed in God. Once or twice I tried to explore atheism and see whether I could go down that road, but it seemed both unreasonable and unbelievably bleak. I had no intellectual attraction to it.
What I find challenging about Christianity is not its beliefs, but living up to its standards. I’m always consoled by the passages in Scripture where God says “I am always there for you”. Jesus never told anyone to go away. He always invites. Reading the New Testament the last couple of years, I have been tremendously the way the disciples often made a big mess but Jesus never despaired of them.
Spending time in the New Testament is good for anyone. It’s been a wonderful privilege to do so and to learn so much about it. Faith is not knowledge, but spending time with Jesus is a very good thing to do. A particular temptation and weakness for intellectuals is to think that by thinking about faith they have practised faith. But faith is an active thing. It does engage the intellect, but it’s not just intellectual. It’s been a great pleasure and very personally beneficial.
Image credit: National Civic Council, ‘The Biggest Story in the World: Greg Sheridan’s 2000-year Scoop’.