Attractive snapshots of the Christian family: review of Greg Sheridan’s new book, Christians.

…an attractive portrayal of Christianity for those who do not share the faith


Greg Sheridan, Christians: The urgent case for Jesus in our world, Allen & Unwin, 2021.

From $26. Paperback.
Available from St John’s Books, Fremantle

Reviewed by Ted Witham

First published in Anglican Messenger, Perth, October 2021.

Greg Sheridan introduces his new book on the people of Christianity with his cheerful description of our faith:

‘On the inside, Christianity is full of feast days and family, full of fellowship, full of friendship. And everyone is welcome, surely never more so than at Christmas. It’s full of care for the sick and elderly, and for infants. It’s full of sport and play, hard work and rest. It’s full of good music and laughter, happy rituals and lots and lots of food (it’s very big on food). It is the principle of human solidarity. It’s the search for decency. It’s a conversation with each other and with God. As John Denver might have put it, in Christianity you routinely speak to God and rejoice at the casual reply.’ (Page 11)

Christians is Greg Sheridan’s second book in defence of Christianity. Sheridan writes of a large Christianity, catholic in the widest way. One of his principal arguments, first advanced in his 2018 God is Good for You, is that it is more reasonable to believe in God than not. The first book was mainly a rejoinder to the new atheists. In it, he took on writers like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens and showed how much bigger Christianity is than the caricature Dawkins and Hitchens attack.

In this second book, Sheridan tells stories: the stories of Jesus, Mary and the remarkable Paul. Stories of the faith of Scott Morrison, Alpha’s Nicky Gumbel and the Melbourne Anglican founder of Converge, Jenny George. He tells the story of China’s Christians, and the difference they may make to the future of China. In London, he compares the neighbouring churches of Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB) and the Brompton Oratory, where traditional and informal liturgies, high classical church music and Matt Redman’s Gospel songs are all quite different and all nourish believers.

Christians compresses Christianity to its simple heart. For a reader like me, Sheridan sometimes makes Christianity seem too simple. But his purpose is to provide an attractive portrayal of Christianity for those who do not share the faith. In that, Christians reminds me of C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity,and Christians is a more entertaining read than Lewis.

Greg Sheridan’ s writing is compelling and accessible. He works as foreign editor for the Australian newspaper. In Christians, he is open about his political stance (he describes himself as centre-right). In a throwaway line, he suggests that Christians are likely to be centre-right or centre-left in their politics. Extremes are likely to lack love.

Christians is endorsed by well-known journalists and by church leaders as diverse as Russell Evans from Planetshakers International, Peter Comensoli, Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne and Pastor Samuel Rodriguez, President of the US National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.

It is a book that can be shared both with non-Christians and Christians alike. Those unfamiliar with our faith will find an attractive picture of how Christian faith is lived, and Christians will be encouraged that such a positive book will speak to such a challenging time.   

The Witness


Genesis 22:1-14

The story of the (near) sacrifice of Isaac is foundational for Jews, Christians and Muslims. Abraham’s faith is proved. It is a mysterious story with many threads. I have written the story The Witness to highlight one of those threads.

The Witness

The climb up Yahweh-Jireh in the wastelands of Moriah brought me to the edge of insanity, but I honestly don’t think it shook my faith in Lord Yahweh, blessed be his Name.

The lands of Moriah are barren and windswept, bad lands where even sheep don’t bother to go. They are dotted by rounded steep hills which at first glance look identical to each other. Actually each one is slightly different in height and shape. It’s a maddening place to find your way through. You are never sure of landmarks, and even the sun casts shadows in unpredictable directions off and around those hillocks. A place to lose your way and your mind.

The only place to go when God asks you to weigh up what you value most: your faith or your son. How can you make such a value choice? My faith gives me life; my son is the brightness of my life. Everything I have comes from God, and I acknowledge that by faith. Everything I am, and everything that I have produced, is summed up in my son.

I think I would die of grief and emotion if my son was taken from me by disease or accident. I know I would die from the spirit down if my faith was taken from me. Yet here was I being asked to take the initiative in killing off one or the other. Your son or your faith. This was not the thief’s choice of

“your money or your life”.

This was the no-win choice of

“your life … or your life”.

We set off, travelling light. Just two servants, young men who would not awkward questions, new workers for whom I hadn’t yet built up that lifelong sense of mutual loyalty. But I travelled with that heavy-heart of dread that drags a man down, dreading the moment when Isaac and I had to leave them and go on on our own.

Isaac could ask awkward questions. He always had that sense of freedom with me. I encouraged it, indulged him, if I tell the truth, because he was the son of my old age, the miracle of God’s provision. You can’t believe the joy of knowing that one time in my life when I was capable of fathering a son, and the even more intense joy that that son turned out to be Isaac. Don’t blame an old man for spoiling his son, for idolising what God had given, when his faith had proved him right.

Yet for all my errors, God was never faithless. God never let me down. You might feel it was cruel of God to place that ultimate test before me: stand and deliver, man; hand over your faith or your son. Your life or your life.

It was hard to bear, I can tell you that. My throat cramped with pathos at Isaac’s innocent question. “Father, the fire and the wood I see for a burnt offering, but where is the lamb?” I choked out my reply, “Yahweh Jireh” … God will provide. No logic in my answer, but it was the deepest statement I could give. With my whole being, I knew it in my depths. Yahweh Jireh. God will provide.

But I was caught, like a ram caught in a drafting race. I had to go through with it: The fascinating horror of it all drew me on. I built the altar on the desolate hill-top. My hands carried stone after stone, building what I thought was his tomb. Isaac was eager to help. “Father, let me carry that large stone,” he kept saying, each offer a stiff blow to my chest.

Numb to the core, I motioned to my lovely son to lie on the wood on top of our altar. I tied him there with a rope, forcing myself to look into the beautiful eyes consenting strangely with patience and trust to this ultimate violation.

As he lay, his head fell back a little, not fully supported by the dry branches. His throat was exposed. I raised the monstrous knife, my eyes affixed to that new skin, not yet stubbled with a man’s beard, and my brain seemed to explode as I brought down the knife thrusting to kill God’s most precious gift.

After that appalling moment, I opened my eyes. Isaac was alive. My hand was still above my head, still poised, but there was no purpose left in it. The knife hung slack like a broken question mark. My head was light, almost dizzy. I vaguely realised that a sacrifice was about to take place, and there, caught in a thicket of thorn bushes, was a ram. A most pleasing subject for a burnt offering. Yahweh Jireh. The Lord had provided. The feeling in the depth of my being was right: deeply and marvellously right and in tune with the heartbeat of the Universe: In the most desperate, the most threatening, the most tearing apart experiences, trust and wait. Yahweh Jireh.





Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446)

God knows what that choice is like. God also sent his son to a wasteland – the loveless, lifeless, sad place that Israel was under Roman occupation – and took his lovely son Jesus up the hill of Calvary and broke his heart too.

God, though, completed what I couldn’t complete. He allowed the sacrifice of his only Son, his only hope for the future. He killed him off. From my experience I can whisper of some of the pain which that caused God. Some of his grief, some of his extreme agony. God brought that knife down and took the breath away from the son whom he loved as his own life.

But my experience also tells me of the deep hope that runs strongly underneath even in that nightmare time. The knowledge – far deeper than wishful thinking, far more real than casual hoping – the sure knowledge that Yahweh Jireh – it will be provided.

Surely Yahweh himself had that deep knowledge as he waited for the resurrection of Jesus – Yahweh himself must have shouted with joy on the first Easter Sunday, “Yahweh Jireh” – my son is given back to me!

Surely each one of you, though you may not, as I was, be driven to the edge of madness, but simply as you live, as you cope with joy and sorrow, as you experience the attainment of relationships and their breaking-up, as your career paths open and close, with all that makes up life, you too can shout with the deep knowledge “Yahweh Jireh” – in God’s providence, it will be provided.

The Desires & Disappointments of Being a Missionary: Betty Hay TSSF

Missionaries, especially those in the tradition of Betty Hay, leave the comfort of family and home culture to carry the Good News to people in different places and of different cultures and make sacrifices and are prone to deep disappointments.


The recent death of Betty Hay in Denmark is an important milestone for Australia’s Anglican Third Order Franciscans. Betty was the first Tertiary to be noviced in the Australian Province in 1958. Her admission to the Third Order took place while she was a missionary nurse in Papua New Guinea.

It seems appropriate to re-publish my review of Betty’s memoir, named for the call-sign of their plane and the initials of her vocations: Nurse, Pilot, Missionary.

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Betty Hay tssf, November Papa Mike: Nurse, Pilot & Missionary, 2014.

ISBN 978 1 74052 315 8

Available in paperback (200 pages) and hardback.

Reviewed by Ted Witham tssf

We Franciscan Tertiaries should pray for missionaries. Our first Aim is to make Our Lord known and loved everywhere, and praying for missionaries is an expression of our solidarity with others working to make our God loved and known.

Missionaries, especially those in the tradition of Betty Hay, leave the comfort of family and home culture to carry the Good News to people in different places and of different cultures and make sacrifices and are prone to deep disappointments.

The late Archdeacon John Wardman is mentioned favourably by Betty Hay in this fascinating memoir. Preaching on the 50th Anniversary of his priesthood Fr John expressed intense disappointment and sadness at the doors closed to him when he wanted to return from Papua New Guinea to parish ministry in Perth. I felt blessed by his honesty and tears in the pulpit.

Betty Hay, too, shares not only her deep desire from early in life to be a missionary, but nearly burst with disappointment when, after only four years, her fragile health forced her to withdraw from the rigorous mission environment. Like Fr John, the drive to share the Gospel did not stop when Betty came back to civilisation: she continued to work strenuously, first to support the logistics of the mission work from Port Moresby, and then, on return to Victoria, as a Child Health nurse.

Betty tells her story charmingly. Born in Western Australia, she grew up near Perth and trained as a nurse. As the vocation to the mission field started to grow, Betty realised she needed more training than Perth could then provide, so moved East, where she accumulated every nursing certificate available, a pilot’s licence and married her flying instructor.

Betty and Bob applied to ABM for missionary work as a couple, and ABM placed them in the north of PNG. The building of the health service offered by Bob and Betty alongside a small team was an extraordinary feat.

Betty describes in fascinating detail her treks into the highlands on foot and by canoe, her living conditions both on her journeys and at the mission. Their wide skill sets of both pilot-nurse and engineer-pilot were stretched by God’s grace to meet the needs of both locals and ex-pats.

I did wonder how well prepared the missionaries were to understand and work with the local culture. For example, Betty over-rode the custom of not naming children and insisted on being told the name of each child she cared for and recording it.

The Australian Province of the Third Order marks its beginning from the time that Betty started as a novice in the Third Order in 1958. Her memoir is a wonderful illustration of one Tertiary’s long journey making our Lord known and loved, living simply and in harmony with others.

Laugh-out-loud descendant of Don Quixote


Graham Greene, Monsignor Quixote, London: Penguin Books, 1982.

In public library system.

256 pages, paperback. New $15, Used $10, online

Reviewed by Ted Witham

Graham Greene’s modern take on Don Quixote made me laugh out loud. The way simple parish priest Father Quixote becomes a Monsignor is delightfully unbelievable. With a vague ideathat he is like his ancestor Don Quixote, the new Monsignor sets out on adirectionless road-trip with deposed Communist mayor ‘Sancho’ Panza. He nameshis ancient Seat motor car Rocinante after Don Quixote’s steed.

Fortified by a few sausages and a great deal of wine of La Mancha, the priest and the mayor, old friends and sparring partners, find themselves hilariously tilting at the Guardia Civil, the modern equivalent of windmills.

The two friends discuss faith and communism, friendship and authority, and sleep off the wine. The exploration of these deep topics is playful but insightful.

Greene’s writing is lucid and engaging. I don’t know how I missed this, Greene’s ‘best novel’ according to the Spectator, but it was great fun.

Sing for your faith


1462742661-01-_sx142_sy224_sclzzzzzzz_Keith and Kristyn Getty, Sing! How Worship Transforms your Life, Family and Church, Nashville TN: B&H Books, 2017. 176 pages hardback.

ISBN:  9781462742660. Not yet in Public Libraries.
Online $15 second-hand, $17 new. (My second-hand copy in new condition cost $7)

Reviewed by Ted Witham

What an encouragement to be told that Christians must sing: for the Gettys, congregational singing is both privilege and obligation. They point to many places in the Bible where we are commanded to sing, and, while conceding a place in worship for song as performance, their focus in Sing! is on the central place of congregational singing.

The Gettys make a living from writing and performing songs and encouraging the Body of Christ in music. Many of us have sung their In Christ Alone, an example of a singable melody and strong Biblical content. The chapter headings of Sing! assert that we are created to sing, commanded to sing and compelled to sing. We are to sing with heart and mind, with our family and with our local church. They write of the radical witness when congregations sing, and in a series of ‘bonus tracks’ provide checklists for pastors and elders, for worship and song leaders, for musicians and for songwriters and ‘creatives’.

Each chapter is followed by questions for reflection or discussion in a study group. Sing! would work well as a book club discussion, or a study for the whole congregation.

Sing! invites Christians to consider the first principles of congregational singing. It critiques performances that do not help the congregation to sing. The Gettys affirm the wisdom of a familiar repertoire, limiting the number of new songs and hymns.

In many congregations the idea that singing is compulsory will be controversial. As a musician and priest, however, I am pleased that the case for singing is put so strongly. How much stronger in faith singing congregations can be. How much stronger in faith are families and individuals who sing or listen to the songs and hymns they have sung in church on Sunday. And how much joy is evoked by the beauty and artistry of good music and poetry.

Sing! is not primarily for pastors and worship leaders. They don’t need convincing. A resource for all Christians Sing! will encourage all of us to sing more heartily.

Prime Ministers and Christianity


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Photo: Courtesy Agence France

In Church this morning, someone thanked God for our new Christian Prime Minister. I felt disappointed by this rush of enthusiasm. Before I lose my readers, let me state that I am very happy that Mr Morrison is a regular church-goer. I rejoice that God calls Christians to the vocation of politics: our country needs them. However, I reject the implied criticism of Mr Turnbull. For Scott Morrison’s faith to be a welcome novelty is simultaneously a judgement that Malcolm Turnbull is not one.

Mr Turnbull converted to Roman Catholicism. He chose not to politicise his faith.  In his recent book God is Good For You, in interviews with Malcolm Turnbull, journalist Greg Sheridan ‘was astonished at the depth of his knowledge of Catholic theology.’ Sheridan comments that Turnbull ‘affirms his belief if asked, nonetheless doesn’t talk publicly about religion all that much, but he very frequently makes reference to love. Perhaps he uses the word ‘love’ more than any previous prime minister.’ (p. 175)

Turnbull’s use of the word ‘love’ is significant as the way he parlayed his faith into the public realm. Even his enemies have noticed this intensely theological language. In fact, one of his detractors mocked his use of ‘love’ in the wake of his defeat.  But Turnbull chose not to use his faith as the public face of his policy making. He believed that arguments in the public sphere must stand on their own merits and not on their theological rationale.

Bill Shorten, too, is a convert, in his case from Catholicism to Anglicanism, the faith of his wife Chloe. Shorten is a product of a Jesuit school. Sheridan, no Labor apologist, is impressed by Mr Shorten’s’ serious knowledge’ of Christianity. Shorten takes into the public realm a quote from the legendary Jesuit Pedro Arrupe, ‘to be men for others’ as a key theological virtue. But like Malcolm Turnbull, Bill Shorten disciplines the boundary between his faith and public life.

The stance of Turnbull and Shorten may even make us question politicians who let their faith be known because it is good politics. It may (or may not) increase Mr Morrison’s vote, but it won’t justify the decisions he makes a Prime Minister.

So, all power to PM ‘ScoMo’. I will pray for him as duty bound, and with added interest because he is a fellow-believer. But I thank God for Mr Turnbull too, and for all who choose to serve the community as politicians. It’s a hard job, and they need all the help they can get.

Believing: a tangled skein


I heard of a priest who was asked recently, ‘Do you ever have moments of doubt about your Christian faith?’ The priest replied, ‘On some days I have moments of faith.’

I am intrigued by atheists who seem to think that if they can knock one argument out from under a Christian, they will have of necessity knocked the person off their Christian stool. Comedian Ed Byrne, for example, talking to agnostics, ‘If you haven’t heard God speak to you in a sunset or a beautiful landscape by the time you’re 40, you’re an atheist.’ His assumption appeared to be that just one thing could make the difference between being a Christian or not.

I experience being a Christian not as a series of skittles to be knocked over, but as a tightly tangled skein of meaning-making, experiences and fellowship. Included among my persuasions are doctrines, ethics and aesthetics, the ever-fascinating engagement with the Bible, my identity and my incorporation into particular parts of Christ’s Church.

So atheists sometimes try to win the argument by asking what I would believe it were proved that some bones were definitively identified as the remains of Jesus. The empty tomb is only one little part of my believing, so, depending on the day, my answer is either a confident argument from logic, ‘It will never happen’, or an answer from conviction, ‘It would make no difference to my foundational belief.’

Some Christians trip over philosophical wires by trying to solve the puzzles of the 2nd and 3rd Centuries. What does it mean to call God a Trinity? The Prophet Mohammed was one person for whom the doctrine of the Trinity disproved Christian faith. He founded a new religion with monotheism front and centre. Five times a day, his followers now proclaim the Shahada, ‘There is no God but Allah.

trinityflyer‘One God in three persons’ makes less sense for our times because of the philosophical assumptions at the time the Creeds were written. Faith that God is one in three is always faith, however, and Christians can choose simply to believe it, or like Catherine La Cugna or Karl Rahner in the 20th Century devise completely new philosophical pre-suppositions for the doctrines of Trinity.

Other Christians recite the Creed each Sunday, ‘We believe in One God’ – the Trinity – as a statement of the historical faith of the Church. This is the Church and its beliefs in which I choose to belong, even while holding lightly to the details of these dogmas.

I have many moments of not believing or understanding how Jesus Christ can be completely human and completely divine: there are just too many paradoxes in the doctrine to contemplate at once. However an atheist who shows me how irrational this belief is will not therefore persuade me out of being a Christian.

Bedrock to my faith is the person of Jesus, yet many atheists join me at the core of acclaiming Jesus as a provocative teacher of good living, although some atheists try to make Jesus interchangeable with other gurus and guides.  I do stick to the uniqueness of Jesus. This comes partly from my ongoing fascination with the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. Many atheists find they can reject Christian faith without reading the Bible. I find its books more and more intriguing as I read them, whether it’s unravelling the insights of Wisdom literature or attempting to interpret the Book of Revelation.

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Saint Jerome – courtesy brittanica.com

As I read the Gospels, I find more and more to surprise me. In the ‘Good Samaritan’, Jesus tips the world of loving upside down. Unlike his peers, Jesus calls us loving outsiders as equal a duty as loving our families. Another surprise: Being a neighbour is not so much about those whom I can help, but about who I allow to be neighbourly to me.

Much of my experience of being a Christian comes from the Church which has shaped me, paid for my theological education, and which continues to give me support. Just this fortnight with my wife away, I am experiencing the practical help of the local congregation bringing me meals. Of course, such do-gooding is not limited to Church people, but the fact that it is Church people living out charity as part of their faith reinforces my Christian identity too.

I cannot undo my experiences. I have discovered God in the music of Olivier Messaien. I can try to explain it away in psychological terms, but nothing can change what Messaien has revealed to me.

There are days when I try to persuade myself out of faith, but it can’t be done, I don’t think, because my faith is too vigorous a garden and grows by weeding and digging out old growth. One-punch atheists don’t get the complexity of religious faith as they believe it is a single flower.

I offer this short piece as one flower of my thinking as a Christian.

m

 

Helpful Whiff of Heresy


5111brslwkl-_sx142_sy224_sclzzzzzzz_Lorraine Parkinson,
Made on Earth: how the gospel writers created the Christ, Richmond, VIC: Spectrum Publications, 2016.
ISBN 9780867862546
Online: Paperback $49, Kindle $11.99

Reviewed by Ted Witham

For some years, I’ve held lightly to the doctrine that Jesus Christ was fully human and fully divine. It’s not that I wish to demote the importance of Jesus, which was the purpose of the original dogma. It’s more that a pre-modern conception of divinity does not do justice to the ways in which Jesus of Nazareth actually  connects me with the sacred world.
Lorraine Parkinson’s new book Made on Earth helps me on my journey of belief by adding to the ways in which I can articulate my unease about Christology. She systematically works through the gospels in the order of their writing – Mark, Matthew, Luke and John – to show how the message of Jesus about the kingdom was deliberately transformed into a message about the identity of Jesus as the expected Messiah.
Lorraine Parkinson is a retired ordained minister in the Uniting Church based in Victoria, and is in demand as a speaker for meetings of progressive Christians around Australia.
She tells the story crisply of how the infancy narratives appear to have been added to Matthew and Luke inventing the idea of Jesus being conceived by the Holy Spirit, and thereby being God’s Son. She reveals how the life of Jesus was fitted into the typology of Moses or Elijah to further the argument for Jesus’ more than human status. The gospels

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incomprehensible?

were a sermon to persuade readers that Jesus had transcended Judaism and that his followers needed to distinguish themselves from the Jews.

 
She makes a plea for ‘progressive Christians’ to turn back to the original teachings of Jesus. The gospel of Jesus as the one Messiah  has led to a church that

  1. relies on fear (making sure you are right with God so you can enter the afterlife),
  2. that promotes anti-Semitism (the Jews are depicted as Christ-killers), and
  3. that ends up as Christendom (the Church as a new Roman Empire focused on power).

Returning to a simple reliance on the Sermon on the Mount and the parables of Jesus will invigorate individual followers of the Way of Jesus and remove the weight of having doctrinal commitments to a divine Christ.
She asks us to remember that the Gospel writers were ordinary human beings who believed they were inspired by the Holy Spirit. Her arguments here appear to be based on common sense alone and I would have liked her to wrestle with the theology of inspiration a little more deeply. As followers of Jesus, understanding God’s truth and how we know it is an important issue.

 
This book is dangerous. It emits a whiff of heresy. I admire Lorraine Parkinson’s honest courage in questioning the 3rd and 4th Century interpretations of the meaning of the Gospel. We need prophets to show the way forward for followers of Jesus of Nazareth, and Made on Earth is an important step on that path.

sermon-on-the-mount
Sant’Apollinare, Ravenna – mosaic

Rejection


Rejection

—They’re dazzling Da-Esh with wonders and signs
Across widespread Islamist latitudes,
Where gospel is grounded in physical confines
And must be proved by miracles’ certitudes.

—We in Nazareth are more Word-based, of course,
Our gospel is rooted in reason’s deep grace,
In doctrine and Midrash is Jesus’ real source,
In text and good preaching we see Jesus’ face.

So Jesus can stand and read the whole scroll,
he can sit and discourse and be learned as well,
he can count off the ways he will save your soul –
but he cannot act. No! We’ll move to expel.

Your water to wine, your sadness to joy,
disrupting our world prepared to destroy.

  • Luke 4:21-30

christpreachnaz

Christ Preaching in the Synagogue at Nazareth. 14th c. fresco (detail).
Visoki Decani Monastery, Kosovo

 

Transfiguration


Transfiguration

I walk this distant red gorge path alone.
My feet seek strength but I fear its sheer side,
I reach out searching for my God: unknown.
I touch nothing and weep; my faith has died.

I trudge on with the bread and blood and Word
These connect me to the church not to God.
“Scriptura sola” is literally absurd
My only joy is that others have trod

This way; and overstepped the bounds of linking.
I’ve lost the power to feel where God creates,
Abandoned zeal, fearing downfall, am sinking —
Instead of love, my worship isolates.

I falter, fall, free-fall down the chasm deep,
I faithless, God grasps me, who makes the leap.

  • Luke 9:28-36 (February 7, 2016)
    “Scriptura sola” – Latin tag meaning “Scripture alone”.

red-layered-rock

Image courtesy http://www.australiasnorthwest.com/Destinations/The_Pilbara