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Public Speaking

Thursday, 21 April 2022  | Gordon Preece

‘Public Speaking’ is not a mere change of speech technique, full of ‘how tos’, but about a profoundly Christian posture or stance in public life, work and speech.

I have previously argued[1] that we need to take our people-ness (Greek: laos) and our scatteredness in the world’s various spheres equally seriously, in word and deed.

Thus we are not merely tribal, with backs to the world, nor engaging in a collective version of the common, possessive and relativist ‘my truth’. We are engaged in mutual encounter, searching together, but across tribal lines, for transcendent truth beyond both groups’ grasp. This is somewhat different to Martyn Iles’ ACL column ‘modestly’ entitled ‘The Truth’, with its unbiblical hierarchy of truths privileging personal righteousness in sexual and bioethical areas over social justice issues like race, refugees or climate change. Towards Truth would be more true.

Out latest issue of Zadok Perspectives and Papers on ‘Public Speaking’, though basically intra-Christian, includes a fine article by famed Jewish ABC broadcaster Rachael Kohn in dialogue with a range of religious authors on Fear and Faith, reviving the notion that if you fear God you need fear no other. And Megan Powell-du Toit’s imagery of Jesus’ death tearing the Temple curtain of Jew-Gentile, priestly-lay and male-female divides has powerful public impact. It also nicely links with Kevin Giles’ paper on women’s subordination in AFES – one of Zadok’s two founding entities – which led to a split and less effective public significance for both.

Our theme gathered itself around an emerging dialogue from last year’s Christian Schools Australia’s Conference on Education, which I and Stephen McAlpine both addressed. Stephen’s Being the Good Bad Guys later deservedly won the Australian Christian Book of the Year Award. We have a finely nuanced review essay by his friend Nathan Campbell. McAlpine is right, in Campbell’s and my view, to critique the Missional Church movement from which he comes, for expecting that once the barbaric cultural and colonial barnacles of Christendom were cleared from its hull it would be allowed fair passage and mooring rights into now secularised harbours, cities, universities and media.

This naive idea of a neutral, naked public square, well critiqued by Richard Neuhaus and McAlpine, proved less enamoured with an equal playing field for ideas, so convinced were the enlightened ones that they’d already won the game. An equal opportunity Speaker’s Corner became constricted for Christians, giving way to de-platforming on a grand scale. So right-wing fundamentalist censorship of J.K. Rowling’s ‘suspicious’ supernaturalism has been overtaken by her becoming the enfant terrible of cultural left-wing fundamentalist attacks by transgender advocates.

But McAlpine’s blogs, while self-critical of his own conservative side’s failures, have increasingly distanced his harder, badder approach from some thinkers he normally likes. He finds Miroslav Volf’s ‘soft difference’ reconciliatory Christian witness, influenced by 1 Peter (3:15-17), too soft. He sees James K.A. Smith as likewise too soft, suspected of shifting from ‘accepting not affirming’ to fully affirming LGBTIQ+ students at Calvin University. But Steve may have over-read that – you can affirm a person but not their practices. Further, Smith’s Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology (2017) hardens or stiffens the spine of some current Reformed Common Grace views by his emphasis on the contrast between Christian and secular/sexular views.

For all the increasing recognition of Christian influence on secular mores by historian Tom Holland’s supreme Dominion, Quaker philosopher Elton Trueblood’s picture of western civilisation being like cut flowers, withering away without roots and life, should not be ignored. Progressive governments, like Victoria’s, abstract and absolutise aspects of Christian morality without its Christ-centred heart. Woke becomes its own source of worship, as does the Right’s anti-woke identity politics. The discerning way forward is not wholesale political attachments but ad hoc alignments or co-belligerence on certain issues, as Schaeffer saw on ecology in his Pollution and the Death of Man (1970).

On rhetorical strategy, a triple emphasis on Plato’s ‘the good, true and beautiful’ corrects modernist rationalists (Christians and non-Christians) with their personalisation of The Science, whether on climate or pandemic, causing minority reactions. Paul’s contextualisation, his affirmation of seeking and his seeking a second hearing in an oppositional context, have much to teach us when truth is on trial. Likewise, his searching questioning, like Jesus and Socrates, is stressed by educationalist Neville Carr’s paper, balanced by Mark Durie’s biblical political theology.

Our outstanding regular columnists Steve Taylor and Alison Sampson are as pithy as ever. Movie reviewer Darren Mitchell wraps up the issue, concisely tracing the development of the long-term sit-com The Ricardos and the idiosyncratic and influential tele-evangelist Tammy-Faye Bakker. All these forms of Public Speaking have lessons to teach us about Christ’s body’s public posture.


Gordon Preece is Ethos Director.


This editorial was first published in the Autumn 2022 Zadok Perspectives issue on ‘Public Speaking’ and has been edited for the Engage.Mail blog. You can subscribe to Zadok Perspectives here. 

[1] See 'Public Bible Reading: personal and political' (Zadok Perspectives 72, Winter 2001, 4); and my chapter ‘The Public People of God: A Paradigm for Social Ethics’ (in Spirit of Australia II, ed. B. Howe and P. Hughes, 2003).

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