THE prison of addiction needs no bars on the window. The addicted identity sees itself as the true identity so that no threat to supply will be contemplated. A temperance tract will be caricatured no matter how well written.
We fear the unfamiliar if it has been maligned. In A Fortunate Life, Albert Facey described his experience in 1910 of being a fourteen-year-old lost during a cattle muster in the north of Western Australia after a stampede. Having heard stories of their barbarity, he dreaded being captured by the tribal Aborigines he could see in the distance and so hid from them. They were a rescue party.
The usher stands by the exit of a burning theatre and in a steady voice says, “This way, please. You’ll be safe if you listen to me.” The patrons are racing about and screaming in panic. For him to shout would achieve nothing. They should know that in this well-run theatre the usher would be there. A few listen out for him and escape.
I will draw this together.
Vietnam veteran Barry Heard grew up in a rural Victorian town without mains electricity. Televisions could not operate on a twelve-volt system and so there were none. In his autobiography, Well Done Those Men, Heard recounts how he entertained his comrades with quaint stories and letters from home. Returning after two years, the town had acquired 240-volt power. He describes the effect:
I had grown up in a community alive with activity. There was no television. But now, in early 1968 coming home to Swifts Creek after Vietnam, shattered what little partially imagined or real dreams I had of the area. Things like the new TV in the lounge room at home, which had been there a little over six months, was the centre of life in the evening. Any attempt at conversation was greeted with “Shhh!” Further attempts were ignored … The reception was so poor that there was nothing more than a foggy haze with the odd shaky human figure on the screen.
This didn’t deter my family; they remained fixated. Bedtime for the kids became a ritual of orders given from an armchair, normally disobeyed until the offending party was threatened with dire warnings. Bedtime for the older members was determined by the dot that appeared on the TV when there was no longer any transmission. It wasn’t just my parents. This new, mesmerising addiction had hit the entire district, almost overnight once power and reception was available.
After my discharge from the army, the only thing that survived in the Omeo shire was the footy. Sporting bodies were forced to combine with outer-district towns to keep their teams alive, and all other social events seemed to disappear. The TV, the pub, the footy, in that order, was now the new way of life. Now after a footy match in the winter, the players would rush to watch the replay on TV. Whereas before there were yarns, dinnertime stories, socialising, and popping in for a cuppa. They soon became a thing of the past and were replaced with TV shows.
That incidental observation of a returning veteran captures vividly just how we are reeling from the cultural holocaust of television—which is not to condemn it. (The invention of the printing press presumably had a similar effect.) Television is suited to drama and light entertainment. Used well (and I am thinking of the Australian hospital documentary RPA) it can take us to places we could not otherwise go and can inform us on delicate subjects with anonymity. Yet watching television is an undemanding pastime, voracious of the few free hours available each day to engage socially.
Ratings are more easily achieved with the coarse and salacious than with fine quality and genuine wit and so the borders of good taste are always pushed, consistently lowering the tone of public life. The long and unusual work hours required of the industry do not suit those raising children and a bohemian character has developed which affects its content. Malcolm Muggeridge, who worked in television, often commented how adept the medium was at deceit, citing, for example, how refugees had to jump three times from the Berlin Wall before the cameras got it right. We believe what we think we have seen.
Whilst a firestorm destroys, it also shows what is durable.
In that light, the decline of Christian churches in Western societies is obvious but it is their resilience which should be remarked upon. The growth of mass society has shown the strength of Christianity, not its weakness. The church has survived as an authentic community group when almost every other, as Heard observed, has either been destroyed or has been absorbed into the mass fantasy—money, glamour, gonads, gambling, grog. Fad-driven progressivism is its cult expression. (Ever wondered why everyone at the ABC is a progressive?)
Churches do not market well. They can’t afford it and they have nothing to sell. They come across as cheesy. Being part of a church will be painful. You have to get on with people you don’t like. You make no money out of it. On the contrary, it costs a lot to support a minister and maintain the buildings. For all this expense you’ll get a twenty-five-minute sermon each week and that probably won’t say that you ought to be congratulated.
You don’t go for the entertainment. You don’t go for the conversation. You don’t go for the networking opportunities or to meet someone’s expectation. Why go? To worship God. To give thanks and praise to the holy Source of our being who made us, loves us and, through His Son, died for us. You don’t go to receive—but to give. It’s called grace.
It is also a rich experience, over time, to be part of a living community of faith. You can’t condense it, put it in a bottle and stick it on a supermarket shelf. We matter to each other. We love each other. We love God. It’s a committed family that puts up even with my funny ways.
Mass society has not destroyed the church but refined it. Nominal Christianity has declined but the faithful are still there. It is popularly assumed that the mainstream church is destined to decline to extinction across the Western world. That is not true in Sydney where, committed to Scripture, the Anglican Church still grows. Record numbers of clergy are being ordained to the point of oversupply. This doesn’t make the news.
The Second World War came as a desperate threat to civil society, freedom and prosperity. As a nation we prayed for deliverance and in its wake there was such gratitude to God that families sent their children to Sunday schools in unprecedented numbers. But these Baby Boomers, my generation, were seduced by a siren song played loudly on an exciting new medium.
Affluence and decadence ever walk together and the greater wonder is the large number that did not succumb. Being raised in a loving Christian home could be a protection. A cake diet has less appeal for those who have known good bread.
I wrestled with the “scientific” thing—only to conclude the obvious. Despite being critically examined for the last 300 years the New Testament remains the only plausible account for the origin of the Christian church. The forensic search for the “historical Jesus” found no fault lines. The supposed “refutations” never get beyond metaphysics, saying: “It can’t have happened and therefore it didn’t!” At what point don’t we just accept the evidence?
All of the really big questions have been well tested through history so that we can easily identify the durable answers and weed out the fads. Christian scripture carries the patina of those years and so we may confidently draw on it.
As sin addicts, we have a stock of clichés to caricature it, but Scripture remains and, in a clear voice, not shouting, says, “This way, please. You will be safe if you listen to me.” Like young Facey, we have heard the slanders and hide from what would help us.
The Christian path is narrow and steep but not dour. It is a celebration, as befits life—full of music.
One aspect of Christian godliness under challenge is sexual propriety. Yet marriage is secure in a primal logic: We reverence human life as the essence of our being. We therefore properly reverence the act which creates life. We reverence marriage as that which clothes the life-act in its highest dignity.
Some call for a return to Western traditions and, though lacking a personal faith, they quietly hope that a revival of Christianity might aid this. But that is to put the cart before the horse—Man before Maker.
The starting point is God. Christianity is neither a political cause nor a cultural movement. It is a community of those who are faithful to Christ and whose influence quietly pervades private and public life—the highest vision of the human ideal and its highest practical expression.
Kenneth Harkness is a Sydney solicitor.