Media Talk: The Weekend Australian Magazine (Diary of a Feature Story)

Media Talk: The Weekend Australian Magazine (Diary of a Feature Story)

Generally speaking, when you write a feature, you have already formed a hypothesis on your subject matter. Some journalists/writers, after putting said hypothesis through the proverbial Bunsen burner, will go with their pre-conceived judgements regardless of evidence to the contrary, choosing those quotes, anecdotes and facts that match their world view (see Op-Ed); others delve into the feature process, laying aside all personal bias, and allow the facts and their interview subjects to shape their story, while keeping in mind those hallmarks of the fourth estate: fairness, accuracy, balance.

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.


frangipani princess said...

I agree so much on the point that Christianity has to become more palatable and less judgmental for teens/young people. So many people I know are scared off even looking into Christianity by the way many of them dress or act, or react to the way non-Christian's dress or act. Christianity is meant to be about love and acceptance, but the modern Church doesn't really portray that very well.

My mum attended a funeral of a close work colleague recently and the service contained an hour long sermon on how most people in that room would be going to hell for not believing enough, and how saying things like "he's up with his friends having a drink" at funerals was blasphemous and another way to get sent to hell. For many people in that community funerals are the only time they go to church, and if they're being told things like that, it's easy to see why they're not running back.

I have friends who have been told by Christian teens that their families are sinners, or that they can't hang around with them unless they change their ways, and even heard the story of one girl in my year who created a list of classmates going to hell for their 'sinful' ways. This was when they were thirteen!

I am a Christian, but haven't attended Church since moving over a year ago. I haven't really found a church that's a good fit, and even one who whole heartedly accepts my Harry Potter obsession, as odd as that may seem to some. To many of my more hardcore Christian friends, my pop-culture obsession is not something that should be held by a true believer, and the way I love celebrity guys and science fiction and magazines and whatever else is taking me down a path, further away from God.
Personally, I just don't see this. I mean, as long as I love God and accept Him into my life, does it really matter if my favourite book series is about a wizard? Or that sometimes my shorts are a little short?

I learnt my lesson on judging people whilst on exchange. Before going I was super judgmental; wouldn't talk to certain people because of their appearance, looked down on teens who drank/smoke/were promiscuous/did drugs... and then I met a girl who did all of those things but I took time to get to know her, in a way because I had to, and discovered an amazing person beneath all the layers I would normally have based my opnions on. I think so many Christians today just take people at face value and don't take time to really get to know people. Get to know the girls behind the make-up and the rumours, behind the cruiser bottles and the piercings...if they got to know them, without their "holier-than-thou" viewpoint getting in the way, maybe more people could be convinced to turn to God and see Him how He's meant to be seen, instead of the overly judgmental being many Churches make him out to be today. They should also realise that the girls (and guys!) who a lot of the time they're judging so harshly are the ones who really need God's love and compassion the most. You don't just wake up one morning and decide you want to drink heavily and have sex with everyone, something happens. You're missing something in your life and God is the perfect thing to fill the gap, instead of the things they've been turning to..

I could go on forever but this has turned into a mammoth comment! Sorry!


Gina79 said...

What a great site. I have only just found you, and I rarely leave comments on blogs (despite being a devoted follower of several). But your thoughtful writing has really inspired me.

In terms of this post in particular, there is always a constant struggle to be motivated by love, and not judgement and pride. But love, after all, is Jesus' message.

Alison said...

Great profile/article Erica! x

Ben said...

Nice profile btw, it’s good to see different sides of the church. After all, church means people, not a building.

Btw, Jim Bartle’s comments were 100% Australian. And let’s face it some of the Psalms are very explicit.

Anonymous said...

I was really glad (and surprised) to see you guys and JCE get a fair hearing from the secular press. I've seen a few articles like this go pear-shaped because of what you suggest, the bias the writer brings to the story. This piece reads like a great advertisement for the vibrant and relational way of doing church that's "emerging". Looking forward to seeing the progress on the compound when I'm next down your way.

Bianca said...

I have just read Girl with a satchel for the first time after reading the article in the Australian over the weekend. The article was such a refreshing read and so is this site. As a young Christian woman in the media I always felt as though I was alone but I'm encouraged to see there's more of us! This blog will be something I constantly visit for support and inspiration so thank-you!

Rebecca said...

great article, what an honour to be a part of this feature!

As a Christian, I also had one of those "cringeworthy" moments on the weekend - out for dinner with friends, and some of their friends. All were from a "big" church -and they all looked and acted the same. Yuppie Christians was what we had to call them by the end of the night... They weren't too interested to talk to any of the non-Christians (uh, isn't that what Outreach is?) or even Christians they didn't know... We are very good in the christain faith of being involved in "cliques" aren't we!

Oh it's a fine line isn't it! Then, i wonder if i need to take the "plank out of my own eye".

But thanks for the food for thought!!

Melissa said...

Well, that was unexpected. I'm a feminist, gay rights advocate atheist/agnostic in a relationship with a Christian (Pentecostal) man and after reading that profile I'm almost willing to give god another, more serious, go.

I get put off by a lot of the anti-woman, anti-gay stuff that is equally prevalent among the Pentecostal churches and the more traditional Catholic and Anglican denominations. I really object to the creationist crap that my in-laws (and to a degree my boy) buy into. I hate going to Christian weddings and hearing the bullshit about the man having a 'special spiritual responsibility' and I downright refuse to believe that my GLBT friends are 'choosing to sin' and will continue to march in the streets to make sure they enjoy full equality, but I wonder if I can't work within the system to change these things, rather than fuming at them from the outside.

Jennifer Reid said...

I love your honesty, openness & obvious passion for Jesus! Thank you for being such wonderful role models Erica & Jim xo

becw said...

BRILLIANT article! I particularly love this quote from you, "I was a Sydney girl, over-invested in my career, very self-focused, worshiping at the altars of celebrity and Westfield."

Anonymous said...

so true. love your blog - a breath of fresh air!

Jess said...

I'm another who has discovered this blog through the Australian feature! I was impressed by the article and by the story of you and your husband (and his comments on 'shagging' as you put it made me laugh, in a good way!) You guys are a 'good ad' for Christianity!

:) Jess

Victoria Reichelt said...

Great article Erica!

Anonymous said...

I read this article today, and found myself checking out this blog. I just wanted to say that as a young Christian, I deeply admire you for endeavouring to use your gifts to honour Jesus. Reading this today was extremely inspiring.