What Kevin Rudd, Malcolm Turnbull, and John Howard have in common
Journo Greg Sheridan got them to talk about a very private part of their lives
When Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull dug into Greg Sheridan’s new book, he was struck by the News Corp journalist’s retelling of the story of Jonah reluctantly going to Ninevah and being disappointed by his success.
“As Greg observes, Ninevah is not far from where Mosul is nowadays,” Mr Turnbull said at the launch of God is Good for You at the NSW Parliament House.
“There used to be 100,000 Christians in Mosul – now there are no more … isn’t it extraordinary that, in so many parts of the world where people of different faiths have lived together in relative harmony for hundreds and in some cases thousands of years, now they can no longer do so.”
The Prime Minister was one of a host of political leaders who had to be cajoled into giving interviews to Sheridan for the book, giving rare insights into how Christianity lights up their lives.
Sheridan says he was impressed with his political subjects because none of them wanted to reveal this private aspect of themselves, but they proved to have inner lives of great depth.
“They were profoundly Christian, but it wasn’t part of their public narrative at all. Kristina Keneally said to me that politicians tend to be more religious than the average, but the media tends to be tremendously irreligious – and I think that is one of the reasons why politicians are so shy of talking about religion.”
A fascinating revelation in the book is that former prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott are devoted to visiting the sick in hospital.
Sheridan says he had “enormous fun” writing God is Good for You: A Defence of Christianity in Troubled Times, which is putting God on the shelves of airport bookshops nationwide.
Sheridan, who is Foreign Editor of The Australian newspaper, tells Eternity that, as a Catholic, he didn’t grow up reading the Bible very much. But in an attempt to defend the God of the Old Testament against attacks by the new atheists, he wrote a chapter on the Old Testament and discovered how full of joy and vitality it is.
“I didn’t know just how enjoyable the Old Testament is, what fun it is, and what a terrible thing it is to deprive kids of any knowledge of the Old Testament, just as part of their cultural heritage quite apart from the religious side of things,” he says.
“I didn’t know just how enjoyable the Old Testament is, what fun it is.” – Greg Sheridan
Through the “splendid” Book of Jonah, which he describes as having “a rollicking quality,” he discovered that “the God even of the Old Testament is the God of and for everyone” – even a raggedy secular journalist of 40 years’ standing.
The first half of the book contains a rather bleak analysis of the church’s diminishing influence and the dangers in Western culture’s increasing hostility towards Christianity and amnesia about its legacy.
Believing that part of the reason for society’s crisis of faith is a crisis of knowledge, Sheridan hopes that his book – his seventh – will make a small contribution to putting Christianity back into the public square.
For me, one of the strongest chapters in the first half of the book is a persuasive argument for the rationality of faith.
“That was great fun writing that chapter and making that investigation. I had not read the new atheists because I had no particular reason to, but also there was a part of me – maybe 1 per cent of me – that thought ‘maybe they will present arguments that are very challenging to belief.’
“But then in the writing of this book, I systematically read the new atheists – Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and so on – and their arguments were so feeble! And so bizarre. And to believe in atheism you had to engage in such weird magical thinking.”
“I thought, ‘you can’t believe in God but you can just make up an infinite number of universes!’ This is really wacky.” – Greg Sheridan
For example, in rejecting God as creator of the universe, atheists have to deal with the fact that life is very unlikely and our universe is very unlikely – statistically one in a hundred billion – so they suggest there are an infinite number of universes and, by luck, we happened to be in the one that turns out to be sympathetic to life.
“I thought, ‘you can’t believe in God but you can just make up an infinite number of universes!’ This is really wacky.”
Sheridan devotes the second half of his book to profiling Christians of various denominations and is surprised by the vibrancy he discovers in a diverse array of Christian traditions – “discovering a Benedictine monastery that is knocking recruits back, discovering the Pentecostal church which I hadn’t really been familiar with, which is just thronging with young people, and discovering an evangelical parish in Perth which is parish planting. So all the signs of new life everywhere.”
He came to the conclusion that a workable Christian tradition needs three things – strong leadership that boldly declares their message, a vigorous, clear message, and worship that is coherent, understandable and beautiful.
“My own taste in church music is rather conservative – I love traditional church music, I love Gregorian chant, I love the old hymns. But I went along to Planetshakers [in Melbourne] and, like everyone my age, there’s a bit of the old rock n’ roller in me, and they do their rock-pop religious magnificently. If you went to a rock concert and got music that good, you wouldn’t want your money back. And it is in the service of the Bible.”
In his final chapter, Sheridan proposes that Christians need to recognise that society is turning against them and that, as a minority, they should expect to be attacked when they go into the public square.
“We have an enormous advantage because we’re telling the truth and the truth resonates in all human beings.” – Greg Sheridan
“And also when we argue for minority rights for Christians, we’re arguing for minority rights for the truth … and our identity has as much claim on public policy as anybody else’s. That doesn’t mean you’re trying to get an exclusive privileged position for Christians, but you’re trying to get the respect which will allow you then to hold your beliefs, to run your institutions, to proclaim your teachings, and so forth.”
With his love of military metaphors, Sheridan concludes that it’s more fun being in a minority because you’re on the attack, rather than on the defence.
“You’re the guerilla force attacking the bridges and the roads and the towns, instead of the more static problem of having to defend. And, of course, we have an enormous advantage because we’re telling the truth and the truth resonates in all human beings.
“So even if the forces against us look rather formidable, we’ve got lots of advantages. Which may be another way of saying my temperament is very Irish. The situation is desperate but it’s not serious!”