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A sketch of creative millennials from the inner north of Melbourne

Tuesday, 20 February 2018  | Remy Chadwick

It is commonly accepted by Christians that our culture is moving fast away from its ‘Judeo-Christian roots’. Australians are rejecting many values that have previously been shared across demographic lines. It has become difficult to share the gospel with ordinary Australians, and church leaders are increasingly worried that the mere presence of Christians in the culture is under threat. But Australian culture has many strands, just as there are many subcultures within Australian Christianity. In order to successfully navigate the changes taking place, we need to have a multi-layered picture of our culture. We need to see the different parts at work and appreciate their impact.

Here I share my experience with one of the parts: young culture makers. I can only sketch them out anecdotally, having live in the inner north of Melbourne for five years, studying and working as a theatre practitioner. My hope is that this sketch will inform Christians who have limited exposure to this demographic. I leave it to readers to make their judgement about the influence this demographic has over our evolving culture.

The people I refer to here generally live in the inner north of Melbourne (Carlton, North Melbourne, Brunswick, Fitzroy) or adjacent suburbs such as Northcote, with some overlap from other areas (South Yarra, St Kilda, Richmond). The inner north is significant because of its night-life - gigs, rehearsals and shows happen at night. Much of the social interaction happens then: quick dinners, post-rehearsal drinks in pubs or trendy bars, house parties in terrace homes with tea, wine or a joint. Many of these people also like to get coffees and breakfasts together in the myriad cafes of the inner north. Creative or production meetings tend to happen around these kinds of social interactions. Entertainment might involve seeing a show at the independent venues that many of these people want to be performing in (e.g. La Mama, Gasworks, Malthouse). It might include watching an art film at Cinema Nova, a gig at the Evelyn or the Toff, late night comedy in pop-up spaces or their friends’ art openings in small galleries (with free drinks supplied).

This demographic is highly attuned to culture. They are university educated – arts degrees abound. They’re interested in literature, history, anthropology, politics, racial/gender studies or cultural studies (film, art history, music). A number go on to study at the Victorian College of the Arts, aim for prestigious post-graduate arts courses internationally or form their own independent companies – they hope to produce culture themselves. The student theatre scene at the University of Melbourne has a rich history of producing working artists in the Australian theatre industry. The respected Australian theatre director and former CEO of Black Swan Theatre Company Tom Gutteridge has identified these alumni as the most daring (‘craziest’) creatives to enter the industry. They experiment, they participate in 3-6 productions a year, they fund their own runs interstate and write their own work. They are creatively driven and completely independent.

This demographic cares about cultural and ethical values. Many are vegetarians, practically all of them vote Greens or Labor. They are politically engaged and participate in activism. They are generally opposed to global capitalism; they can be intolerant and generally dismissive of any form of social conservatism. They stand against school chaplains, university fee deregulation, big military spending, welfare cuts. They are not religious. Most of them don’t believe in a higher power or in anything supernatural, although they are not for the most part militant atheists – they might be best described as ‘loosely agnostic’.

In my interactions throughout university and subsequently working alongside these people, there seem to be two obstacles to Christian faith:

1. They find religion weird. Sometimes this has seemed like an elephant in the room. They just don’t understand how religion helps people. Some are curious (one friend asked me what ‘ritual things’ I do around Easter) and some just avoid it. It can feel alienating to be the only Christian in these kinds of groups, because they make all sorts of unspoken assumptions about you and then realise that you don’t really fit their picture, so they don’t know what to do with you. A few have a Catholic-school image of religion, seeing it as a system of joyless obedience and conformity. This perspective is usually superficial and is backed up with poor understanding of the material they criticise. For example, I once worked with a director who was exploring staging ideas related to locusts. She stated that there was a Bible verse which taught that, in a thousand years, all who reject Jesus would be swarmed with locusts (and proceeded to mock the Bible because this hadn’t happened). One friend told me that she ‘just can’t believe’ regardless of what might be rationally plausible. Still others regard religion as a form of piety or moral consciousness. They won’t find it appealing simply because they trust their individualism and political awareness – they don’t feel the need to be declared good by some practice or institution. It is worth noting that they are nevertheless very spiritual themselves – in their artistic practices. Creative expression in various forms gives them encouragement, inspiration and value, as well as rituals to follow.

2. The second objection is a moral one, which is worth fleshing out. Many see Christianity as part of a wider institutional problem in Australia. This is closely related to issues of power, sexuality, gender and racial tolerance. They accuse Christianity of being a system, or a set of systems, through which inequality and oppression can thrive. They see it as an old white boys’ club that protects the privilege of certain classes/cultural groups or that panders to people to make them content and subservient to the interests of the powerful.

Many of these people identify as feminists, to varying degrees. Their feminism, particularly of the intersectional kind (incorporating racial, cross-gender and sexual identity issues), is a quasi-worldview. They observe, study and experience sexism in our culture acutely. Engaging people on these issues as a Christian requires much care, and my views have been challenged in many ways. In my first year at university I met and became friends with multiple women who had been raped in the past three years. One woman described to me how her father had repeatedly abused her as a child. The Christian worldview is of no value to them if it cannot speak on these issues with sensitivity and integrity. Unfortunately, the public perception of Christianity on this topic is poor (largely because of the findings of the 2013 Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse) and many people I know are not prepared to give Christianity a fair go. It doesn’t help that the majority of Christian representatives in the public eye fit one demographic: Caucasian, male, above forty – the epitome of privilege. Also, there is an assumption that Christians are prude or sheltered and cannot say anything significant about these issues. In my view, this assumption is not unwarranted when I compare my experience of Christian community with that of the arts world.

It doesn’t help that Christians rightfully take strong stances on certain controversial issues, which happen to be the opposite of theirs. I recall a heated discussion over drinks, where an actor I was working with stated her support for post-natal abortion. Melburnian philosopher Peter Singer is the main exponent of the view. He argues that newborns lack ‘rationality, autonomy and self-consciousness’ which are the defining characteristics of personhood, and that consequently infanticide is not equivalent to killing a person (Singer, Practical Ethics, Cambridge, 1993). It was very difficult to live out my faith in that situation. The actor came to me some time later and apologised if she had caused me offence, as she hadn’t known at the time that I was ‘super religious’. I told her that she was wrong but that I respected her and valued her work. That was an important conversation that I could not have had if I had attacked her or refused to listen. Another time, a director I had worked with some time before told me that she had always been interested about my Christianity. I had previously sensed suspicion – my faith seemed to be a problem to her. She described herself as a ‘radical feminist lesbian’ and, as she saw it, the Christian track record on gay rights and indoctrination is appalling, especially in the developing world. Her anger was personal. I had to tread carefully, and I tried to make the point that neither of us were fundamentally different to the other; we cared about certain things and our artistic work was an expression of that. The struggle I faced was being able to discuss something meaningful with her. It was about finding a common starting point.

A male creative once told me: ‘Remy, I don’t understand how you can call yourself a Christian. I find it hard to believe that you believe in God. You study philosophy, you care about all these issues like asylum seekers, you know what institutions do to society, it just doesn’t make any sense that you’re religious’. To him, there was something fundamentally unethical about mere association with Christianity. He was persuaded that I would stop believing in God at some point in the near future. He once asked me about my view on marriage and when I described it to him he screamed in disbelief. This guy was an entire world away from the gospel of Jesus, and what kept him from hearing it was a major ethical problem with religion. A Christian friend of mine and I lived with him in Adelaide for a week for a production season, and we had many good opportunities to witness to him and the rest of the crew. But unless he finds other (rare!) Christians in the arts world he is unlikely to hear the gospel properly, because he will not go near or give any credence to Christian communities, like churches, that conform to his expectations.

The people I have discussed here might have completely distorted pictures of Christianity, and I am not endorsing their judgements of Christians. However, they represent a demographic within our culture that we mustn’t ignore. I have no doubt that some of them will be leaders of our society through their creative work. Additionally, their communities are ones that some Christians operate in and seek to minister to. It is not easy and it is often tempting to stay quiet. In turn, the Christian world can be frustrating for creatives because if feels so inaccessible for them. The arts industry is built on networks of people, so having good conversations, meeting new people, investing in relationships and doing life together is very important to their community. I would love to see this world and the world of the church bridged, and I am thankful for opportunities to introduce them to other Christians. As one friend told me, it shook his certainties when he realised that Christians aren’t what he perceived them to be. But their passions and cultural values must be engaged with properly, otherwise they will keep to their biases and all the hard groundwork is undone. I pray that God would give them a willingness to change, and that he would give the Christians they encounter wisdom and courage in how they engage with them.

Remy Chadwick studied Philosophy at the University of Melbourne. He is an actor, musician and the director of creative ministry at St Matt’s Prahran.


John Kidson
February 23, 2018, 11:24PM
Remy! I really appreciated reading your piece. All the best to you as you continue with the acting, music and other creativity. At my life-stage I keep trying 'little bits' ... one day...! I will pray that you will have a break-through experience in our warped & redeemable culture!

Grace & power!
February 24, 2018, 8:35AM
Remy, this is a spot on assessment of being a Christian in the theatre world today, not just in Melbourne but universally for creatives working around the country. It is a huge challenge to the church and one that few are considering. I feel that the church at large and on the whole has no interest in engaging with the creative community and perhaps the way forward is small fellowships of creatives, perhaps loosely united, that are not attached to any specific institutions (which are seen as an impediment to faith) but who work out how to reach their own tribe. Thank you for this article, it has captured many of my own thoughts and experiences.

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