Journalist Greg Sheridan’s magnum opus on Christianity is a comprehensive and incisive look at the world’s largest and arguably most influential religion, from Biblical times to modern-day Australia.
Christians: The Urgent Case for Jesus in Our World, by Greg Sheridan
(Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2021). Paperback: 384 pages. ISBN: 978-1760879099
At a time when believers are often afraid to poke their heads over the parapet, Greg Sheridan’s Christians: The Urgent Case for Jesus in Our World comes as a tonic for our faith. The Australian’s long-time foreign editor unashamedly proclaims his faith in the veracity of the New Testament and pays tribute to those in Australia and beyond who are living out Christ’s message to the world, often at risk to themselves.
This book follows his God is Good for You: A Defence of Christianity in Troubled Times (2018). Here he writes of his delight in rereading the Gospels over a year or two in search of the real Jesus, using words such as “compelling”, “dramatic” and “gripping” to describe these accounts of his life and those of his followers. He finds them “awe-inspiring” and is ecstatic at the “moral beauty of the Sermon on the Mount”; and of the whole enterprise he declares “what fun it was!”
The Messiah and His Mother
Sheridan begins the first section with the death of Jesus and the historical certainty of His existence, verifiable from several non-Christian sources. We meet the Jesus introduced in John’s Gospel, which is more theological than the synoptic other three with their narrative form, and are told of the dramatic effect of a particular passage on a (then) Buddhist named Kanishka Raffel, now dean of Sydney’s St Andrew’s Anglican Cathedral. As he puts it,
“I was drawn out of myself to the love of God and the love of neighbour.”
There is a chapter on Mary, whom Sheridan describes as “the most influential woman in human history, and the most loved”. She was the first to proclaim Jesus to the world, and the journalist in him refers to the detailed account of her part in the drama which we find in St Luke’s Gospel as a “scoop”, presumably reflecting what we infer was his subsequent access to her recollections.
Her role in Jesus’ adult life and those of other women in the Gospels are also recounted. He concludes with Mary’s response to the Archangel Gabriel: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word”. Sheridan reminds readers that his own daily prayers to the mother of Jesus are seeking her intercession — not invoking her as a deity.
Angels and Saints
Sheridan’s belief in angels is addressed in another chapter, which begins with the surprising news that 77 per cent of Americans and 40 per cent of Australians share it. He cites Jimmy Stewart’s 1946 Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, and the more recent films and TV series that feature this enduring belief, which for many is intuitive. Hollywood presents them as messengers and as helping human beings. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all depend on angels for much of their narrative, and theologians from St Thomas Aquinas to Billy Graham have written extensively on them.
The section concludes with a chapter on St Paul, whom Sheridan calls “Christ’s Lenin” and later the “Abraham Lincoln of the early Church”. He uses a plethora of adjectives to describe him, from intellectual and loving to difficult, demanding and blunt, all of which seem appropriate when you read his letters. Like the revolutionary, Paul built an “alien enclave” in a pagan world, while like Lincoln he was able to use powerful language to define a moral purpose.
Paul’s letters predate the Gospels, but expound Christ’s message without any departure from what he had received. Along with Peter, he never denied Judaism, but won the debate over whether Christians had also to observe the Old Testament Law, for which he substituted “Love your neighbour as you love yourself”.
To those who dispute Paul’s authorship of some of these letters, Sheridan argues that we can never be definitive on the issue. His most enduring legacy to a Christian world is his universalism:
“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
In the Modern World
The quirky chapter title, “Smuggling Christ into popular culture”, begins the second section. Skipping two millennia, Sheridan explores the lives and work of many living out their faith today, from film-makers to writers, politicians, church leaders and heroes in the social apostolate, and finally the courageous Christians in Communist China.
He describes it as pointless to lament the lost artistry of films and literature in the past 50 years, and points out that the God is Dead movement has been going for several hundred years, while the Christian strand is still strong, and booming outside of the West. Here we are destined to be a “big, lively and tenacious minority”.
Sheridan then spends the bulk of the chapter finding hope in some recent TV and network series and literary works such as those of Piers Paul Read and his pick for best Christian novel of the 21st century, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (winner of both the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award).
Our author then turns to “Christians who keep giving” with the introduction of three extraordinary women. Inspired to pursue a life of service and poverty, Gemma Sisia has left a comfortable life in Australia to provide primary and secondary education for 2,000 students in Tanzania over the past 20 years. The role of her faith in St Jude, patron saint of lost causes, and the prayer for his intercession in every problem she encounters make a fascinating story. Her actions reflect the concept that God is a verb rather than a noun.
His second subject is Frances Cantrall, whose Culture Project is based on an American model from which it takes the name. Her young team’s work involves engaging often cynical students and other young people at the level of their culture “to awaken their desires of what they were made for”.
Another is Jenny George, who after a brilliant academic career is CEO of Converge International, a successful business which provides well-being services, especially in mental health. Growing up Plymouth Brethren, she is now an Anglican and married to the vicar of St James’ Old Cathedral in Melbourne.
Faith and Politics
“Light and shadow, in the hearts of leaders” is a chapter devoted to allaying public cynicism about men in public life through the stories of four whom he knows well. It includes Scott Morrison’s religious journey, along with his wife Jenny, to now worship in a Pentecostal church. Of the role of faith in his life, Morrison tells Sheridan that he seeks inspiration from God in tough times and that prayer and the Bible are important to him.
Former Nationals leader and Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson is a fifth-generation grazier, who has known tragedy in his life. He has founded a website on which he presents interviews with people whom he admires, such as John Howard, Kim Beazley and Jordan Peterson. They discuss culture, values, life and meaning, among other topics. At times Anderson has despaired of his faith, but professes Pascal’s wager that it is better and more rational to believe than not to believe.
Next is Peter Cosgrove, much admired military leader and former governor-general, who prays for his family, the nation and his beloved ADF, and is concerned at the state of religious belief in Australia. He recognises the attraction of tearing down institutions, but warns that if there are no substitutes we are adrift. Of the morality of soldiering, he believes that living in dignity means preserving freedoms.
Last comes another former governor-general, the late Bill Hayden, who, after a lifetime of professed atheism, fell in love with Christianity, realising that it is more than a religion of rules. He was a man of giant achievements, such as bringing in universal healthcare, and one who suffered political disappointments. He held no grudges, and had unpredictable friendships, such as that with Tony Abbott. Sheridan pronounces that in Bill Hayden “there was goodness, goodness and goodness”.
There follow two chapters on Christianity in China, “The Great Wall of Heaven” and “If God is not Chinese, he’s not God”. We are told that there are between 70 and 100 million Christians in China, the majority being Protestant, and that their treatment varies from region to region. Sheridan has worked in China and includes interviews with anonymous Chinese Christians.
He distinguishes between the country’s beautiful traditional culture and the totalitarian ambition of the Chinese Communist Party to control every aspect of their people’s lives. After the persecutions during the Cultural Revolution, there was a huge expansion of Evangelical and Pentecostal churches, but since 2016 the state has become more repressive under Xi Jinping. Many pastors such as Wang Yi and priests from unregistered churches, such as the underground Catholic Church, have been jailed, and party bosses have closed churches and ripped down or banned crosses from public display.
In a dialogue with George Yeo, “a superstar in the Singapore Government”, Sheridan explores the role of Christianity in Asia as an “eclectic creative mix of divergent cultural influences”. Yeo was chosen by Australia’s Cardinal George Pell to assist the Vatican commission on finance and administrative reform. He had been born Christian but lost his faith at university, yet regained it as a less ritualistic and more philosophical understanding of Christian love.
Yeo sees spirituality as a necessary complement to intelligence. Acknowledging the difficulty for Chinese to accept a foreign religion with imagery which does not look Chinese, still he is not pessimistic about the future of Christianity in the region. He claims to have a Chinese side of Confucianism and Taoism and a Christian side which believes in the divine quality of love.
Leading the Way
There is optimism in the final chapter, “New missions, new fire: Christian leaders”. Sheridan takes us to Sammy Rodriguez, Hollywood producer and pastor, and president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, a Pentecostal network of 42,000 churches. Without the institutional inheritance of hospitals, schools and other structures, Pentecostals are well set up to deal with contemporary institutions like Hollywood and social media. Rodriguez lashes the left on cultural issues but is strong on civil rights for immigrants. His well-made Christian films, with many Latino characters, attract a large audience, and as Sheridan remarks, it is hard to imagine a Catholic or Anglican bishop doing deals in Hollywood.
We are also introduced to an Anglican Church in London, Holy Trinity Brompton, where the Rev. Nicky Gumbel runs a hip musical service for a congregation as diverse in age as in ethnic origin. Sitting alongside the ever-popular Catholic Brompton Oratory, it engages modern culture without endorsing it, and Sheridan feels that these two strands of British Christianity are green shoots in a land where other religions are more successful in maintaining religious affiliation. For 30 years Gumbel has also run the Alpha Course, which around the world has been taken by more than 25 million people. He is not pessimistic about the future of Christianity in Britain, which, during the 18th century, also seemed in decline before the advent of Wesley and Wilberforce.
Sheridan’s final subjects are Melbourne Catholic Archbishop Peter Comensoli and the Salvation Army Secretary of Mission for Australia, Lt Colonel Dr Lyn Edge. Both are moral realists, intensely biblical and fired with the need to give meaning and purpose to people’s lives. The archbishop discusses the scandalous abuses, the brokenness of the church as an institution in the civic world, and the lonely life of the diocesan priest. He wants to find new avenues of evangelisation, rather than prop up “crumbling structures”; to change the training of priests; and to avoid “unhealthy clericalism”, yet retain their intellectual formation.
Introducing Lyn Edge, the author evokes the traditional picture of the Salvos, visiting their flock in the pubs and working with alcoholics. Fittingly, Edge is inspired especially by Matthew 25, where the acts of corporeal mercy are prescribed. She discusses the duality of the Salvation Army’s work, the here and now and the prospect of heaven, but insists that they are a religious community, and sums it up as not being either/or but both/and.
Noting the proportion of recovering alcoholics in earlier days, Sheridan likens their story to those of St Augustine and many of the original Cistercian monks. Perhaps surprisingly, Lyn Edge is devoted to written and formal prayers and has some reservations about the spontaneous prayer tradition of her own organisation, the Salvos, reminding us again that they are not just a welfare group blowing its own trumpet.
Greg Sheridan’s lengthy outline of his case for Christianity avoids any discrimination among the various Christian denominations which he encounters. It is the numerous and vital ways in which his subjects live out their faith that he emphasises. Much of the authentic ring of his observations comes from his personal relationships with these extraordinary Christian soldiers, who exemplify the See/Judge/Act maxim of the social apostolate.
Thankfully, the book comes with a useful index and a bibliography to support the many publications which Sheridan sees as helping to smuggle Christ into popular culture. If I enjoyed Sheridan’s reflections in When We Were Young and Foolish (2015), I can honestly say that I feel uplifted after immersing myself in his latest contribution.
The above article originally appeared in the December 2022 edition of the Endeavour Forum, Inc. newsletter. Photo by RODNAE Productions.
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