God! He's back
published in The
Walkley Magazine Dec 04/Jan 05
GIBSON'S THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST PUT THE CRUCIFIXION OF JESUS
ON THE FRONT PAGE OF PAPERS; GARY ABLETT INTRODUCED GOD TO THE SPORTS
SECTION. THEN THERE'S BORN AGAIN GEORGE DUBYA AND AL-QAEDA. RELIGION
IS BACK ON THE AGENDA SAYS HOWARD LANGMEAD WHETHER SOME JOURNALISTS
ARE READY OR NOT, ILLUSTRATION BY JOHN TIEDEMAN.
is back in the news. Religion is playing a significant role in war,
terrorism and US policy decisions. The issue of acceptable dress
in French schools can't be reported without a discussion of religion.
It's invoked in ethical debates, and is the impetus behind an enormous
amount of humanitarian work. Yet not so long ago reporting religion
meant reviewing sermons and parish fetes for the "Church Page".
11, 2001 marked a watershed in the coverage of religion and ethics.
The pervading assumption of Western media that we live a secularised
world was proven patently wrong. Journalists needed to understand
and interpret the nuances of Islam. They were also reporting the
responses in the US and Australia, which included an increase in
church attendance, prayer and spiritual practices. For many people
loss and the threat to personal security are religious issues. Ethical
issues - such as revenge versus response, how we handle a clash
of cultures, and the nature of evil - were debated in the press.
the mainstream media, background and feature articles about faith
perspectives and spiritual journeys are no longer rare. In "A
fight to keep the faith" (The Age 21/5/04) Barney Zwartz wrote
sensitively about a young Pakistani man who converted to Christianity,
his struggle with his family and his disappointment with liberal
Australian Christians who questioned his need to convert.
Kerbaj wrote a feature article "The ultimate cure-all - pills
or prayers?", seeking a connection between prayer and healing.
He represented peoples faith fairly and concluded with a respectful
agnosticism, quoting Abou-Hamben of the Royal Adelaide Hospital:
"We have a lot more evidence for medicine working than we have
for spirituality working," she says. "So spirituality
still has along way to go to prove that it is curing things."
(The Age 3/2/04)
topic of religious news in recent times has been the serious issue
of sexual abuse in the church. Open investigative reporting is essential,
even if painful for all those involved. Secrecy and lack of transparency
has been part of the problem. The press has had a positive role
in exposing cover ups and the complicity of those who did not appropriately
handled reports of sexual abuse.
were accusations that Dr Peter Hollingworth was hounded unfairly
for his actions, or inaction, in handling sexual abuse claims against
a priest when he was archbishop of Brisbane. Some Christians felt
that the secular media was hostile to organized religion. I disagree.
I believe the public debate voiced through the media was important
element in defining responsibility and standards of behaviour relating
to child sexual abuse.
some media outlets succumb to stereotyping and over-simplification
with religious issues. On September 4, 2004, I was present at the
Melbourne Anglican Synod where we discussed at length and with pain
the issues around sexual abuse in the church. I heard that the protocols
now in place in Melbourne Diocese - the compulsory Power and Trust
Seminars for all church workers, advertisements encouraging victims
of abuse to report misconduct, and the background checks on volunteer
workers - were setting a standard for other churches around the
world. But on ABC radio all I heard was the Synod was given a report
that "detailed 104 claims of sexual assault, harassment and
bullying that have come to light over the last 18 months".
(ABC News Radio 6/9/04)
the lead given by some churches in this issue has not been totally
ignored by the media. The Age (21/8/04) quoted Anglican primate
Peter Carnley, as criticising some state governments for failing
to demand checks on people who work with children:
"Only six or seven per cent of abuse is by ministers or church
workers. Churches can't do it alone," he said. "We're
encouraging all state governments to put in place working-with-children
checks such as there are in NSW and Queensland."
critical reporting on religious issues where the facts are accurate
and opinions are owned as such. I do not appreciate stereotypes
and myths being perpetuated: for example, the view that the Christian
church is no longer relevant in a secular, multicultural society.
This proposition is well supported in the media - mostly by implication
- but not by statistics or social research. The truth behind the
myth is that the church no longer has the monopoly on spirituality
in Western cultures that it had pre 1950 and church attendances
have dropped dramatically in recent decades.
the organised church adjusts to being just one spiritual option
in a religious smorgasbord, it is still far from irrelevant in Australian
culture. In the last census in 2001, nearly 70 per cent of Australians
identified themselves as Christians. In looking at the numbers who
actively practice some form of Christian faith the National Church
Life Survey, also taken in 2001, claimed that more people are in
church in Australia on any given Sunday than the total number of
individuals who attend an AFL match in a year. The fervour and commitment
of these two groups was not compared.
is a multi-faith nation. In the latest census the number of people
who identified with a faith other than Christianity was around eight
percent, up by around two per cent from the previous census. In
order of size the main groups were Bhuddists, Muslims & Jews.
increase in the numbers of Bhuddists is largely explained by migration
from South-Esat Asia over the recent decade, but I have twice heard
radio journalists trying to prove their assumption that Christianity
is declinig in favour of Bhuddism. A polite Bhuddhist monk explained
on ABC Local Radio that for every Western person who embraced Bhuddism,
ten Asians became Christians.
prior to being interviewed for a Compass program, a producer asked
me not to use the words "Christianity" or "Jesus"
but to use "religion" and "God". I don't know
if the Buddhist, Muslim and Jewish people interviewed for that program
were given similar instructions, but thankfully the desired religious
blandness was not achieved.