As a feature story writer, it's an odd thing to be the subject of one. Really odd. Particularly when you are well aware that there are certain criteria to fill, like colour, word counts and selecting those quotes that best illuminate the character of your subjects (note to husband, in future please keep thoughts on shagging to yourself!). Weirder still is it to have your personal narrative provide the 'human interest' angle for a social trend piece. Add a potential cover picture (but no mention of hair, makeup or stylist to help you out as per the women's glossies) and things get really interesting (read: eek!).
So, thank the Lord (ha!), my husband and I were in the good hands of Christine Jackman, an award-winning politics and social affairs journalist, former News Limited foreign correspondent and author of Inside Kevin07, who wrote, 'JC and the Cool Gang', a piece on contemporary Christianity and the church for The Weekend Australian Magazine. It's a story being discussed at a table behind me in the cafe in which I write right now, as it was in church circles over the weekend. Good features are conversation starters; good features can illuminate issues we should be talking about.
The story aims to answer the question, "some two millennia after a son of a carpenter inspires a counter-cultural movement, is Christianity finally becoming cool again?". It's a subject fraught with as much controversy inside church circles as there is from people on the outside looking in: are Gen-Y Christians, their wardrobes replete with brand names and their talk peppered with pop-culture references, doing the faith a disservice? Are the traditions being lost as customs are "casualised" by these young folk? And can a faith that places restrictions on certain rites of passage, rituals and behaviours accepted by society ever be "cool"? And, more importantly, is the face of Christ and his message being lost in the semantics (as Julia Gillard is at pains to stress re. the carbon tax debate)?
Jackman writes, "affiliation with an overarching denomination is far less important these days than cultivating your individual church identity – or brand. To old-school Christians – particularly those aged over about 40, who grew up in the dominant Christian traditions of the Anglican and Catholic Churches – worshipping this way might seem, at best, disconcertingly unfamiliar and, at worst, somewhat offensive; a bit like serving up cool Jesus with a side order of fries at a convenient and groovy drive-through."
Another question: is personalised, celebrity-based, "self-help Christianity" sustainable?
Says commentator Mark Sayers: "When, in their quest to remain relevant to young people, churches begin to turn him into a cool Australian, latte-loving guy who hangs out with his surfboard and is cool with everything we do... kids will come [to church] because they are attracted to that. But then they discover they’re not going to be turned into a superstar and they read the Bible and they discover Jesus dies at the end... the quest for salvation has been replaced by the quest for wellbeing. And the danger is Christianity will end up looking like the empire of Oprah, in which God is a sort of cosmic butler who delivers things for us... We need to return to a biblical world view that grapples with suffering, rather than avoids or denies it, and that recognises that man is not the focus. God is. And that God is not going to transform you into this buff entrepreneur with a beautiful wife. There is a much deeper reality than that."
And I would agree. But for younger people, Christianity has to first be palatable. There needs to be a way in that's inviting. And that way is LOVE. And even young Christians, who can be ultra-conservative, can get that wrong.
I had an extensive talk about the article with a Christian couple I admire yesterday who are raising four teenagers. These kids are confronted with all the world has to offer: their friends, in their early teens, have pool parties where girl-on-girl kissing is all the rage. And they themselves, all gorgeous young things, have been accused by fellow Christians of being dressed inappropriately. When one of them took a non-Christian friend to a Bible study group recently, she was disheartened to sense the feeling in the room that her friend wasn't welcome because of what she looked like (piercings, clothing, etc). Her friend doesn't want to go back. I don't blame her. How horrible to feel ostracised in a group where one should feel most welcome. This, I feel, has been part of the problem for 'The Church'. And for all their newfangled coolness, it's a problem for more 'contemporary' churches, too, where the kids tend to conform to a way of dressing that's not about buttoning up.
I've had two experiences in churches that stand out for me: one was when I first returned to the faith and walked into a local church in Sydney. I was confronted by a smiley Christian girl who I got talking to. She asked me what I did for a living. I said I worked on Girlfriend magazine. Instantly, a wall went up. I was no longer a candidate for her friendship. She had pre-conceived ideas about the types of people who worked on such magazines. I doubted that she'd read a copy recently. The second time was at Bridgeman Downs Baptist in Brisbane. Husband and I were there for the baptism of a friend's baby, but he'd given a talk at one of the young adult's groups a couple of weeks beforehand where he talked about my anorexia and how hard that was for him. A gorgeous young woman with quite a severe physical and mental impairment came up to me that day and said, "Are you better now? Are you okay?" and gave me a hug. I had to hold back the tears. I can't even imagine the depth of her own suffering, and yet she was asking ME if I was okay? It was a prideful moment for me to hear my husband tell her, "God thinks you're beautiful and special". That, my friends, is Jesus: compassion, love, humility, grace.
The fundamental aspect of the New Testament is that Jesus atones for your past when you accept him as your future. He calls on us to turn from our wayward ways, for sure, to adopt his heart as your own and to follow God's laws set out in the gospel, which are good and true (when you're obedient the fruit of that in your life is sweet). But, knowing full well how imperfect we are, he gives you a lot of grace as you strive for that righteousness. For some people, casting off "the old self", the selfish one moulded and shaped by the world, is easy. For others, it takes time. We have to be prepared to show our fellow man the same love and grace in this worldly space we all inhabit. The sort of grace that Christine Jackman showed us in her Weekend Australian column space.
"But the LORD said to Samuel, "Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart." 1 Samuel 16:7
Girl With a Satchel
P.S. A note on the picture that accompanies the feature and the online piece: what's up with the forlorn faces? Where's the joy of the Lord? Is this some Christian take on Bra Boys? We were told to pull the serious faces. This is a national current affairs magazine, not Happy Clappers Monthly, after all.