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Book Review: God is Good for You

Monday, 3 December 2018  | Ian Hore-Lacy




God is Good for You: A defence of Christianity in troubled times

By Greg Sheridan

(Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2018)


Greg is well known as an outstanding foreign affairs journalist, especially in relation to India, Japan and Indonesia. In recent months he has been addressing luncheons and other occasions on his new book, which I think shows astonishing erudition for a non-theologian so fully engaged on other fronts. He is passionate about the danger to Western civilisation arising from the disdain and repudiation of Christianity in the public square, and provides much food for thought, constantly returning to the issue of what is true.

Broadly, after discussing whether God is effectively dead in our culture, the first half of the book is an apologia for Christianity and the second is about Christians in Australia - from many high-profile politicians to Planetshakers and Campion College. He writes as a Catholic with Sikh wife and sons.

In the first part, he argues persuasively that, despite our unconscious drift in that direction, atheism is odd and multifariously unhelpful: ‘Liberalism remains in furious rebellion against Christianity, its parent and its source’. He outlines Christian teachings and how they have provided the basis of human rights and human dignity, notably for women, and how they have given rise to science and capitalism, along with ‘magnificent advances in high culture’.

An intriguing section is on the evolution of church and state in the Middle Ages, along with the distinction between crime and sin. While ‘the popes in effect got the state out of the business of regulating sin and the state got the popes out of the business of regulating crime’, ‘the church’s moral sovereignty led to moral changes in secular law, in part to recognise human rights. … The church and the state from their separate points of view were in the process of turning the theological concept of the soul into a civic reality’.

He covers the moral and intellectual problems associated with Christianity, and the pervasiveness of evil, suggesting that it plus ‘innocent suffering and indeed the sins and crimes of Christians’ are difficult problems, arising from there being ‘nothing more scandalous in heaven or on earth than that God should create us with free will, the choice to do good or to do evil’. A chapter affirms the importance of delving the Old Testament.

Part 2, on Christians, notably politicians and their Christian views, is the best-publicised aspect of the book. He leads with Mary Easson, then Andrew Hastie, Michael Tate, Peter Khalil, Penny Wong, Mike Baird, Kristina Keneally, Kim Beazley, John Howard, Kevin Rudd, Tony Abbott, Peter Costello, Bill Shorten and Malcolm Turnbull. He finds great virtue and much to admire in each, having been friends with many of them for some years but now able to draw them out on matters metaphysical and practical.

The Free Radicals chapter covers Planetshakers as a ‘booming, lively, active, growing Christian community’ representing ‘mainstream orthodox Christianity’. From there he moves to a new Benedictine priory in Hobart and a Cisticercian set-up at Yarra Glen. He homes in on three features common to success of such movements: ‘intensity of conviction in the leadership; boldness and forthrightness in the unambiguous declaration of core beliefs; and in practice a cultural coherence which is humanly intelligible, self-reinforcing, sympathetic, and contains an element of beauty’.

The ‘Signs of New Life’ chapter homes in on the Catholic Focolare movement, then the Providence church in Perth with Stephen McAlpine and Rory Shiner, and finally Campion College – a most impressive university establishment west of Parramatta. He writes that ‘numerically [these three] and movements like them in the other branches of Christianity do not balance the structural decline in Christian belief in the West. And they may yet be tender plants. But don’t underestimate them. They have strong roots and a sinewy, determined will to prosper’. Two chapters follow, first on Rev. Rod McArdle following Jesus through his tragic family situation and contrasting so completely with Peter Singer, and then on Archbishop Anthony Fisher through his serious illness.

His final chapter starts: ‘Christians in the West now live in exile. They have been banished from Christendom, however imperfect and unsatisfactory Christendom was when it existed. Their situation is perplexing, full of paradox and difficult to understand’. In outlining the implications, he says that ‘Christians and their leaders need to conceive of themselves as a bold minority’, no longer representing a social consensus.  But this should be a liberating experience! He contrasts this with what he sees as the dizzying decline of English Anglicanism due to downplaying the supernatural (in his view). He flays the failure of churches in many respects. Re independent schools, he asks: ‘Can any school really call itself Christian if every student does not basically have one period of religious instruction every day? What are they doing that is more important?’

He goes on to commend the Benedict Option but suggests that ‘a mixture of withdrawal and engagement’ with unembarrassed readiness to talk about faith is the way forward today. He concludes that Christians should be ready to build new institutions such as those described above, including ‘new evangelical parishes …. or the truly magnificent Campion College. Building new institutions is very hard work. It requires heroic commitment. But there is no better way to give expression to the truth’.

Ian Hore-Lacy is a founding Zadok board member (1978-98), author of Responsible Dominion - a Christian approach to sustainable development, and now Senior Advisor for the World Nuclear Association. He is co-author of Down to Earth Discipleship, a pastoral ‘book’ on the web: www.downtoearthdiscipleship.com.


Comments

Ian Hore-Lacy
January 3, 2019, 2:26PM
Further to the chapter on McArdles, this was published at the top of op-ed page on 27 December:

--------

A miraculous life full of meaning, purpose and value

Greg Sheridan

12:00AM December 27, 2018
102 Comments
This is the story of a young friend of mine, Brendan McArdle. He died in October, aged 27, having been consistently the happiest person I ever met. I didn’t know him well but whenever I saw him he radiated a happiness that was unmistakeable.

I have written about Brendan’s life before, in my book God is Good for You. That was before his death. Brendan was both a blessing and a challenge for his parents, Rod and Sheryl McArdle. It is particularly worth considering Brendan’s story at Christmas. For one of the most straightforward suggestions of Christmas is that the humblest person might be king.

Brendan was born with severe difficulties. He was premature and what the doctors call “ultra light”. He weighed a fraction more than 600g and was little more than the size of a man’s fist. Naturally the parents thought their son might not survive. They thought it was life or death for him. In some ways, the stakes were much more than that.

Six weeks after Brendan’s birth, the McArdles were given a devastating diagnosis. Brendan had been born with spastic quadriplegia. He would never see, for he suffered cortical blindness. He could not swallow and for all of his life would be fed by a tube though his stomach. He had no motor control and as the years went by the muscles in his arms and wrists tightened and their shape became more rigid and compressed.

He had some control over the movement of his head, although even his head always needed some support. These problems all became more pronounced as Brendan grew.

I should confess a bias here. Rod is an evangelical Anglican vicar and for the past 10 years has been a friend of mine. I met Brendan at Rod’s home and, although I’m not an Anglican, on a few occasions I attended services at Rod’s church and Brendan would be there, handsomely dressed and proudly seated in his wheelchair in the congregation.

Rod had a big career in private industry before he changed his life, studied theology and became an Anglican clergyman. But it is fair to say he has travelled a tough road. A little more than seven years ago, Sheryl died after a very hard battle with cancer.

The doctors never expected Brendan to live very long, but his fighting spirit, his own love of life and the devotion of his parents gave him what Rod believes was a rich life.

There is a strong body of opinion in our society that lives such as Brendan’s have little or no intrinsic worth. The atheist philosopher Peter Singer, a thoughtful, courteous man who has the great virtue of thinking his positions through to their logical conclusions (but whose views I find abhorrent), gave expression to this once radical idea in his international bestseller Animal Liberation. He wrote: “There will surely be non-human animals whose lives, by any standard, are more valuable than the lives of some humans. A chimpanzee, a dog or a pig, for instance, will have a higher degree of self-awareness and a greater capacity for meaningful relations with others than a severely retarded infant or someone in an advanced state of senility.”

I once asked Rod for his reaction to this philosophy. He said: “My response is one of deep sadness — sadness that the writer misses the intrinsic value of every person, irrespective of what any given society might deem to be their handicap. Their worth flows from each person being loved by their creator. The Lord sees every person as having the same intrinsic worth — and it is high worth.”

Rod believes Singer’s view of the value of lives of profoundly handicapped people is “so divorced from the reality of our son, Brendan. Everywhere he goes he is a beacon of light and love, and blesses all those who have the privilege of caring for and/or interacting with him.”

Brendan’s care was a 24/7 concern for Rod and his family. Through the years Rod and I conducted our friendship mostly over coffees in a few favourite cafes. There was no reason for our conversation to turn often to Brendan. We mostly spoke of theology, books, politics and international affairs.

But although Rod was never remotely on the lookout for sympathy, he would at times mention, incidentally, life with Brendan — the need to get up in the middle of the night to change Brendan’s position in his bed, needing to change Brendan’s nappy, the extra challenges of holiday time when Brendan’s daycare centre was shut.

There were periods of respite care. Until he was 18, Brendan could go to a special school and occasionally Rod and Sheryl might have a week away together. After Brendan was 18, with the very special organisation of dedicated carers, they once or twice managed as much as three weeks away.

Neither of them begrudged their devotion to their son. After Sheryl’s death, caring for Brendan was not only emotionally but physically challenging for Rod. He is in his 60s and, following professional government advice, early this year arranged for Brendan to move into a care facility. In this long journey Rod has nothing but praise and appreciation for the hospitals, schools and care centres that have dealt with Brendan.

In September, Brendan suffered a catastrophic respiratory episode, then was five weeks in hospital, dying. It was a gruelling time for the family. Though he would still smile when he heard a voice he recognised, Brendan was beyond medical recovery. His family organised a 24-hour vigil with him. This was for two reasons. He would accumulate phlegm in his throat and could die from a choking episode if unattended, and in even the best hospitals nurses are busy. But also the family didn’t want him to die alone.

Rod is an orthodox Christian who believes in healing. At Brendan’s funeral service he preached that Brendan had himself been healed in his body. That he lived for 27 years was itself a miracle. He responded so strongly to church services, yelling with joy at the time of Amen, that Rod believes Brendan “was a spiritual powerhouse”. No efforts of his own, or of anyone else, were wasted on Brendan, in Rod’s view. Brendan repaid it over and over. Brendan’s life had meaning, purpose and value.

Rod also believes in the physical resurrection, the resurrection eventually of all people in their physical bodies, but these bodies will be transformed. As he and Sheryl told Brendan over and over: “There are no wheelchairs in heaven.”

With many comments, mostly positive, including this:
Catherine

Thank you, Greg.

It it might be due to generosity of spirit at this time of year, but it’s interesting to see the overall contrast in comments on your article compared to the one written by Jennifer Oriel earlier in the year (on children with Down syndrome, and the widespread expectation within society of selective abortion of these individuals). The comments there were a real eye-opener in terms of the generally held view that such individuals (frequently less-disabled than in Brendan’s case) are a terrible and unnecessary burden on society/ families, and should never be here in the first place.

As for Pamela’s view (below- which is widely held), the taxpayer burden would surely justify moving on to the elimination of all those with significant disabilities (eg those with spinal cord injuries). And those with dementia. And then perhaps to the frail elderly and the infirm in general. So much money is expended on the treatment of those with chronic disease who are not “productive”!

Which is precisely what took place in mid-20th century Germany, in a project overseen by the state, which many families willingly co-operated with.

It’s worth remembering the detached and assertive “courteousness” of many of the authorities overseeing death camps in an advanced country, just 80 years ago. Perhaps the “courteous” reference in your article (re Singer) should be in brackets, and the “abhorrent” placed more prominently?

Evil presently courteously is a reminder, after all, that the Fuhrer (and Mussolini) at least made the trains run on time.
Susie Gentle
January 3, 2019, 10:06PM
Brendan's story is very moving.

And part of what Rod must have known so personally is that to give is to be truly human (he and Sheryl gave their all for Brendan, and he gave back so much).

It is not truly human to only have relationships to get. The Creator's image is totally marred in us when we only want to get.
John Kidson
January 4, 2019, 6:10PM
Wow! I heard of Greg's book just three days ago. It's now a 'must' buy. Catherine's comments re 'courtesy' and 'abhorrence' are spot on.
Vern Hughes
January 7, 2019, 10:49AM
Greg Sheridan's book is a brave attempt to capture the predicament of Christians living in the early 21st century. But it is riddled with a central contradiction which turns out, in retrospect, to be the same contradiction that stymied the predecessors to Greg's ecclesial-political position in Australian life, the National Civil Council of BA Santamaria, and before it the Catholic Action movements that followed World War One. These movements sought to deepen the immersion of the Christian faith in Australian culture and build up its institutional presence, while at the same time adopting a practice that was almost exclusive statist (that is, focussing on the agency of the state and on political movements whose aim is to capture the state). Thus the NCC published countless documents on developing rural communities and worker and consumer co-operatives to counter the proletarianisation and secularisation of society in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, but in practice it put the bulk of its energy into the most narrow forms of politics (lobby politicians, creating political parties, and engaging in what we would now call the 'culture wars') as distinct from shaping the institutional character of civil society.

Greg Sheridan's book, and his life, embody this contradiction. While he has been employed by fellow NCC admirer at The Australian, Paul Kelly, for thirty years now, Greg's journalism has been thinly-disguised political activism. It has been exclusively state-centred (focussed on the actions of politicians, their parties, their governments, but never on the agency of civil society or of citizens in communities, enterprises, or social institutions). This is manifest in every article and commentary piece Greg has written for The Australian over a 30 year period.

In this sense, Greg's advocacy of Rod Dreher's Benedict Option is curious, and is surely based on a deep misunderstanding of Dreher's argument. Dreher urges the rebuilding of Christian communities and institutions as a counter to the rabid secularism in the West, (much like Santamaria did in the 1930s and 1940s) but Dreher appears to actually mean it. Trying to counter the liberal capture of Washington is a lost cause, says Dreher, therefore cut your losses and start rebuilding grassroots communities. Greg Sheridan doesn't get this - he is still immersed in the Canberra swamp, reporting its tides on a daily basis for a newspaper that describes itself as a 'campaigning newspaper' oriented to capturing Canberra and influencing its elites.

The gap between these two orientations (capture of the state and the building of grassroots communities) is vast. This is not to say that both can't be done, or at least attempted, but as always we should judge the work of others by their practice and not their words. By this yardstick, Greg's work is still immersed in the world of his youth: his practice is statist through and through. Building communities from the ground up is indeed hard work - too hard it would seem for many who profess to like the idea.

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