The public intellectual in journalism is a diminished figure, perhaps especially in Australia. The narrow specialisation of education and the distorting priority of ideology over merit conspire against the breadth of learning required for intellectual leadership, and the flattening effects of a secularised worldview fail to lift the gaze of promising writers to the animating force of religious faith.
Greg Sheridan is a notable exception. A lifelong journalist whose reputation is in international politics—as Foreign Editor of the Australian for nearly thirty years—he has long been alive to the underlying currents of culture and faith. He recognises that not only is politics downstream from culture, but that culture is downstream from faith. His worldview is not confined to this world, nor has he lived within the corridors of confined learning that pass for present-day educational enlightenment. His mind has a transcendental reach, so that it is open to the inexhaustible lessons of history, the illuminating creations of great literature, and the philosophical penetration of original minds.
This review appears in November’s Quadrant.
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His recent focus on the Christian faith has produced two books, God is Good for You: A Defence of Christianity in Troubled Times (2018) and now Christians: The Urgent Case for Jesus in Our World. Each book stands alone, but they can be read as companion, even complementary, volumes. Whereas the first work focused on the biblical inspirations of Christianity and its dynamic blend of rationality and faith to form the moral and legal framework of Western culture, the second book centres on Jesus as the towering figure of the New Testament. His life, death and resurrection transformed history, so that it no longer followed a conventional course but was, in John Henry Newman’s words, “continually verging on eternity”.
Both books share a vital perspective—that the West is now in the grip of a profound crisis of faith. This is not simply a political or even intellectual crisis. It is ultimately spiritual. But it is critically influenced by the squandering of intellectual wisdom that shaped its religious, political, social, legal and educational ideas and institutions. Sheridan rightly stresses the “cultural amnesia” of our time—“a shocking loss of knowledge [that] represents a bleeding wound of loss for Western civilisation”.
Like God is Good for You, Christians is immensely readable. It bears the stamp of the reporting journalist who is also a literary artist. Sheridan has the journalist’s gift for translating complex ideas into a comprehensible form, and the literary power to personalise stories and bring characters to life. The first chapter is a striking illustration. It recounts Christ’s violent death, not only as a historical fact, but as an event that still sends out shockwaves. Sheridan retails the crucifixion in uncompromising detail. We can still be horrified, even after long familiarity, by its unspeakable savagery. It confronts us psychologically, as we accompany Jesus to his excruciating end on the cross, but also intellectually, as we take in the startling idea of an apparent divine debacle: in the author’s description, “the immortal, omniscient and all-powerful God suffering humiliation and death for human beings”.
Jesus’s cry of desolation on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, has the ring of truth. It resonates with the isolation and despair we might all be tempted to feel in the face of death. It shows, as Sheridan notes, how authentically human the death of Jesus was. Yet it carried ultimate meaning. In Chesterton’s words, “God seemed for an instant to be an atheist”. Nietzsche’s announcement of the “death of God” was not as novel as it seemed. God had beaten him to it—on a lonely hill in Jerusalem many centuries before. Yet the tomb did not claim him for long.
In his presentation of the historical Jesus, as evoked in John’s Gospel, Sheridan is both prosaic and poetical. He coolly recognises John’s human desire to have his piece published—on “the front page where it belongs”. At a deeper level, he is conscious of John’s transcendental mission—“his passion, his fiery, urgent determination to shout his message out”, projecting the “human, gentle, welcoming and forgiving side of Jesus, which is the gentle, welcoming and forgiving side of God”. Sheridan finds irresistibly persuasive the opening of the Gospel, which he describes as “grand”, “sweeping”, and “majestic” in its vision of God’s desire and power to bring life and light to the world.
He discusses the growing trend in biblical scholarship towards a greater acceptance of the historical veracity of the New Testament, recognising that it is based on the accounts of eyewitnesses, or of those who interviewed eyewitnesses. He points out, in a nice touch, that Luke could claim for his Gospel the journalist’s prize of an exclusive scoop: he interviewed Mary, and told the first story of Christmas. How could a journalist ask for anything more! A classic validation of on-the-spot, “live” reporting. Sheridan echoes the comment of the ingrainedly sceptical Graham Greene about the rumoured resurrection of Jesus, as described in John’s Gospel:
It’s almost a reportage, it might have been done by a good journalist, where the beloved disciple is running with Peter because they’ve heard that the rock has been rolled away from the tomb, and describing how John manages to beat Peter in the race. It just seems to me to be first-hand reportage, and I can’t help believing it.
Sheridan expresses justified scepticism about the earlier trends in biblical scholarship which tended to exalt speculative theories to the status of proven facts. He realises that scholarly opinions, like all human judgments, run the risk of being conditioned by current cultural prejudices rather than a weighing of historical testimony. Sheridan respects sound scholarship, but his approach has been to come afresh to the New Testament and deal with the Christian faith directly—in the words of the American historian Ross Hoffman, as a reality to be recognised, not a thesis to be established. Only in this way can the difficult balance of truths about Christ be realised, affirming his humanity without taming his divinity.
Other chapters in the book’s first part, “Jesus and His First Friends”, reveal the impact of Jesus’s life and teaching on, first, his mother Mary, and then the early disciples, especially Peter and Paul. Each is depicted in a compelling way, bearing out how impressed Sheridan has been by his immersion in the life of Christ and its effects on his “first friends”:
The human passion of the New Testament calls out to us, demands our attention, across nearly two thousand years. The characters pulsate with life and purpose and brilliant, brilliant humanity in all its blood and thunder, all its quiet moments and its storms.
It is no surprise that the world journalist can write convincingly about the world religion. A solidly Christian and Catholic education and family tradition in his early days nurtured conviction, and a lifetime of journalism has injected a lively sense of the concrete and the incarnational. Sheridan is fully at home with an incarnational faith that gives material and personal expression to spiritual truths. He grasps the essential nature of Christianity, as expressed by the British historian Christopher Dawson in his Harvard Lectures, that it unites the human and the divine in the person of Jesus, a unique historical figure, and unfolds a pattern of defeats and resurrections across the ages that are an accurate mirror of its divine story.
At the same time, Sheridan stresses the essentially supernatural roots of Christianity. His chapter on angels explores their crucial role in the Gospels, as messengers of God, most notably to Mary, that she would conceive a divine son. Sheridan recalls that he chose Raphael, one of the archangels, as his adopted name at the sacrament of confirmation he received in his younger years, reinforcing his spiritual identity and vocation. He points to the enduring interest that angels hold, appealing to the popular mind and heart as valued helpers, as shown in classic movies like It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and in recent television series, Highway to Heaven and Touched by an Angel.
If Sheridan the journalist is at work in the first part of Christians, arguing for the credibility of Christ’s life, death and resurrection on the solid testimony of eyewitnesses—so many of whom became martyrs as the ultimate test of their belief—he is unmistakably active in the second half, “Christians and Their New Worlds”. Here the practising journalist is in evidence, bearing out T.S. Eliot’s definition of the Christian journalist as one who finds “the topical excuse for writing about the permanent”.
He begins by reviewing popular culture and contrasting its positive presentation of Christian faith and life in earlier decades with the generally unsympathetic, not to say hostile, depiction in present-day movies, television series and fiction. Rather than offer a lament for lost memories, he looks at the new opportunities afforded by the presence of Christianity in series like Jane the Virgin and Blue Bloods, and movies such as A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood and Breakthrough (the latter made for mainstream cinema by an American Pentecostal leader, Sammy Rodriguez, who figures as an interviewee in the book). Sheridan also explores the novels of Piers Paul Read (“one of the greatest Christian writers of the last hundred years”), Christopher Koch (whose The Year of Living Dangerously reflects a Christian outlook that he finds implicit but unmistakable) and Marilynne Robinson (whose Gilead he describes as “the best Christian novel of the twenty-first century”).
Sheridan brings contemporary testimony to bear by interviewing various Christians for the book. Some are, or were, prominent figures, such as Scott Morrison, John Anderson, Sir Peter Cosgrove and Bill Hayden, and two church leaders, Kanishka Raffel, Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, and Peter Comensoli, Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne. Others are less well-known, such as Gemma Sisia, the Australian founder of a flourishing school in Tanzania which is lifting thousands of young African people out of poverty, and Frances Cantrall, a Campion College graduate, who has developed for Australian teenagers the Culture Project, a school-based movement fostering faithful relationships as the foundation of family solidarity.
In most cases Sheridan knows the people he features in the book, especially the public leaders he has met through his journalistic work. But he relished the chance to interview those who are less celebrated Christian witnesses in Australia. He finishes the chapter on Gemma Sisia by sensing that her desire to make a difference has not changed from her time at St Vincent’s College in inner-city Sydney, when she visited AIDS sufferers and kept them company. “I love the good feeling,” she told Sheridan, “when you’ve helped someone.” He himself is moved by surprise that Gemma has helped him too, “for she’s made me proud to be a human being”. Similarly, he is struck by Frances Cantrall’s humility in describing why she and her Culture Project colleagues want to help the present generation to build better relationships by living out the great virtues: “The reason we’re called to share this message is because we’re the ones that need to hear it.”
The chapter on political and civic leaders is no doubt the most publicised part of the book. It testifies to the regard in which Sheridan is held by different public leaders, that they are prepared to talk with him about matters of faith they have rarely discussed before, and yet been affected by deeply. His approach in these interviews is to focus on principles rather than specific policy positions. (The Bible, in Morrison’s words, “is not a policy handbook”.) This may disappoint those who are hoping for a religious justification of political stances, but, wisely, the book avoids becoming “politicised”. This would have detracted from its basic nature, a focus on the religious beliefs of those interviewed—why they came to profess the Christian faith and apply it to their lives, and how their faith enabled them to cope with the sometimes brutal experiences of life. Peter Cosgrove speaks of his attitude to enemies in war he has killed. He admits to sadness at the sight of dead people (“They are human beings, they have families too”), but not remorse (“because you’d done what your country asked you to”). Why did Bill Hayden abandon his lifelong atheism to become a Catholic in 2018? “I couldn’t bear the emptiness,” he confesses to Sheridan. “In my mind there was an emptiness without belief.”
While Sheridan’s main focus is Australia and the West, he draws on his wide experience in foreign affairs to explore Asia, in particular China, and to interview prominent Asian Christians such as the Singaporean business executive and former politician George Yeo. He highlights the historical vibrancy of religion in Asia, and the more recent phenomenon of the spread of Christianity in China—in spite of (or, as he wonders, because of) the fierce persecution of Christians. Will Christianity, he asks, change China in ways that capitalism has not done—and “soften the harsh Marxist-Leninist and increasingly nationalist atmosphere of the society into something gentler and better”?
The structure of Christians has an essential unity. In the book’s first half Sheridan explores the essential dynamics of Christianity—how it works in the human heart and what are the historical sources of its inspiration. In the second half he examines its impact on various people today. He points out that, in imitation of Jesus, Paul the apostle did not mount a military or political challenge to the Roman empire. Rather, “he revolutionised the inner identity of pagan society”. The Christian revolution begins in the human heart and soul, and moves outwards to transform social institutions and laws and political and economic structures in harmony with the Christian vision of life. It works from the inside to the outside. This contrasts with the approach of secular society, which does the reverse. It looks to legislation and social enforcement to change human attitudes and ideals.
In one interview, Jenny George, a New Zealand-born business leader engaged in Christian charity work in Australia, makes clear that she is aware of the cultural trends at odds with Christian ideals, but stresses that the vital task is “to be faithful and affect people. It’s a soul-by-soul battle.” This finally forms the basis of Sheridan’s hope for the West—that, while Christianity is finding abundant expression outside of the West, Kierkegaard’s prediction will not be fulfilled, that Christianity would one day be taken away from Europe to teach Europe its value.
Yet the ultimate hope for individuals and cultures influenced by Christianity is the spiritual one of happiness in heaven. Sheridan recalls the Australian writer and publisher Frank Sheed, who was once asked to preach a sermon in a New York church. He chose the subject of heaven so that, as he admitted, “I should not die without ever having heard one”.
The positive thrust and tone of Christians and Greg Sheridan’s “urgent case for Jesus in our world” suggest that, as a foreign correspondent, he could have been sitting in the church in New York that day, and heard that sermon.
Christians: The Urgent Case for Jesus in Our World
by Greg Sheridan
Allen & Unwin, 2021, 372 pages, $32.99
Karl Schmude is a co-founder of Campion College Australia and was University Librarian at the University of New England, Armidale