Is God Good For You?
Since Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion released in 2005, a number of books have explored whether or not we really need God. Responses from people of faith have offered the so-called New Atheists with their rejoinders, with Roy Williams’ God Actually and David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions standing out among them. Greg Sheridan is the Foreign Editor of The Australian and the latest writer to offer a book on whether or not faith is a force for good.
In an interview with Insights, Mr Sheridan said that he was not originally intending to write a book about Christianity, but, he says, a lack of Australian pro-Christian books led him to take up the cause.
“I went to a lot of writers’ festivals… and I noticed there was not one single book written from a pro-Christian or pro-Jewish viewpoint that was being promoted at any of those festivals,” Mr Sheridan said.
“Now, that’s no particular criticism of those festivals, but that struck me as astonishing that Christianity had kind of been whited out of the culture in that way, whereas fifty or sixty years ago the bestselling books in the world were predominantly Christian books.”
“I believe Christianity has been central to the development of Western civilisation. Of course, that involves a paradox, Christianity is a universal faith open to everyone and the majority of Christians today are not Westerners.”
“Nonetheless, Western civilisation developed in the influence of Christianity and also the Jewish tradition. I was struck by that absolute absence.”
Mr Sheridan says repeatedly throughout God is Good For You that he is not trying to reclaim some imagined past glory in which the church was more popular and influential. “The past is a foreign country, [it had] its own villains, terrors, and many, many evils and so on.”
Despite its subject matter, Mr Sheridan says that God is good for you is not aimed at inflaming Australia’s culture wars.
“It’s not a ‘gotcha’ book, not an attempt to batter anyone over the head,” he said.
“I wanted to write a book about first principles: What do Christians believe, why it’s reasonable to believe.”
“I hope people read and enjoy the book…I’ve got a kind of old-fashioned view of the public square. I hope the book will be of interest to people who have Christian faith. I hope it will be of interest to people who used to have a Christian faith and have drifted away. I hope it will be of interest to people who have never had a Christian faith. I hope it will be of interest to people of other faiths. I hope it will be of interest to atheists who read it to be outraged or to consider some alternative arguments.”
Despite this irenic sentiment, there’s no denying that God Is Good For You has a polemical intention, defending Christianity against its critics. “Most of what popular culture is saying about Christianity is untrue,” Mr Sheridan said.
Among other things, the book takes aim at The Piss Christ, a controversial photographic work that depicts a crucifix necklace in urine. The artist responsible for the work, Andres Serrano, was a lifelong Catholic who said his intention was not blasphemous. Serrano is supported in this explanation by the Chair of the Blake Prize (and Uniting Church minister) Rev. Dr Rod Pattenden, who suggests that the work demonstrates how Christ is embodied, demonstrating the offense of the incarnation. Mr Sheridan insisted, however, that the work was an example of how Christians were considered fair game for offense.
While Christianity has certainly seen a reduction in numbers, a lot of theologians are more optimistic in their approach to this phenomenon. When Emperor Constantine made Christianity the state religion of Rome, the result was what is often called Christendom, where the spread of Christianity coincided with that of the empire. Douglas John Hall is among those who think that the decline of Christendom is an opportunity to reclaim Christianity’s original impetus as a minority force.
“I don’t think there’s any consolation at all to be held by saying, ‘Well, we’ve just lost our fellow travellers, we’ve kept the real believers.’ I also think there’s a kind of elitism in that. Christianity in the West, in its glory, has always been a mass thing. You don’t need to be…a personal hero or anything to be a Christian. Christianity is available to people in their ordinary lives.”
While Sheridan is less than optimistic about the church’s decline, he thinks that there is an opportunity for Christians to be more strategic in their approach.
“The last chapter of my book tries to suggest some strategies and tactics to adopt as the way forward,” he said.
“The first thing for Christians to realise is their own situation: that they are a minority…They need to be a bold minority. Western societies are shaped by minorities. Minorities have the initiative.
“When you’re in a minority and determined to be in a bold minority, you’re psychologically in much better shape. You expect that you’re going to be attacked because you don’t represent the mainstream and the consensus any longer.”
He turned to what he admitted was an “inappropriate military metaphor.”
“When you’re in the minority, you have the discretion to decide when you take the initiative. You’re not holding the towns and villages, so you can initiative a campaign whenever you want to. You don’t have to be defending vast swathes of territory which you don’t really hold.”
Questions Politicians Are Not Routinely Asked
In writing God Is Good For You, Greg Sheridan spoke to fourteen Australian politicians, both currently serving and retired. These ranged from former Prime Ministers John Howard, Tony Abbott, and Kevin Rudd, to the then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, opposition leader Bill Shorten and former Premier (now Senator) Kristina Keneally. Mr Sheridan told Insights that they were all generous with their time, providing answers to some probing questions about their faith.
“None of them really wanted to be interviewed,” he said.
“Some of them are identified publicly as Christians and have made their peace with that public identification, I guess Mike Baird, Kristina Keneally, Kevin Rudd, Tony Abbott, fall into that category, but none of them wants to make a big song and dance about their religious convictions.”
“I don’t think that’s because they’re wicked or they’re cowards. I think it’s partly an innate modesty on their part…no-one wants to put their own life up as an example to other people and they’re very conscious of their own foibles and failings,” he said.
“I really felt that they all engaged in more self-disclosure than they initially wanted to… Each one of them answered the questions honestly about very intimate matters, ‘Do you pray? Do you believe in an afterlife? Are you going to see your parents again? What’s the purpose of life?'”
“These are questions politicians are not routinely asked and it was generous of them, I think, to respond in the way that they did.”
Mr Sheridan said that he did not want to see Australian politicians claim a religious warrant for their policies and that he had “no interest at all” in how their faith influenced their political programs. Instead, he said that the interviews revealed, “a very powerful part of who they are, and I think it’s…a good thing to know this about them.”
“What I was interested in was, what are their actual, deepest religious beliefs?”
Mr Sheridan told Insights that he has been happy with how the book has been received so far.
“The book has its limitations and its shortcomings…But a lot of things about the response to the book have been [encouraging].”
“There are not many mainstream, secular books in defence of Christianity, so I’ve discovered to be the best in your field, choose a field in which there are no other practitioners.”
God Is Good For You is available now at bookstores.
Jonathan Foye is Insights’ Editor