Greg Sheridan is one of Australia’s highly respected journalists, having been foreign editor for The Australian for more than twenty years. On the day he was able to sit down and discuss his latest book, Christians: The Urgent Case for Jesus in our World, the crisis in Afghanistan was unfolding. His phone was ringing off the hook and he was set for a busy day ahead. Nonetheless, he graciously set aside time to talk about something outside of national security and international politics that is a driving interest of his: Jesus of Nazareth.

In 2018, Sheridan released God is Good for You: A Defence of Christianity in Troubled Times. Although he has never been cagey about his Catholicism, this book acted as a “coming out” of sorts, throwing his hat into the ring on what he considers to be the most important conversation of all: God.

His latest endeavor, Christians, is a sequel in some ways. Broken into two parts, the first half explores the state of contemporary scholarship regarding the historicity of the New Testament. It explores the question of whether people should take seriously the Gospels and the New Testament as eye-witness accounts of Jesus (the answer being yes, we should). In his research for the book, Sheridan immersed himself in the works of Christian and non-Christian scholars. One of the problems today, he says, is that ‘secular culture tries to bluff Christians out of their belief’, either by claiming science has determined belief in God to be irrational (an absurd claim), or by ‘telling people the New Testament is all lies and fiction and madness that was made up two or three hundred years later.’

Across the board, the pendulum seems to have swung back in the New Testament’s favour, he concludes, both through excellent historiography and archaeological discoveries.

‘I do think the case for the historicity of Jesus and the broad parameters of the New Testament is now overwhelming.’
Christians
Christians: The Urgent Case for Jesus in Our World by Greg Sheridan (2021)

The second half reads a bit differently: he interviews and tells the stories of multiple people who are deeply influenced by Jesus, both unknown and high profile public figures, including Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Peter Cosgrove, former Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson, and Melbourne’s very own Archbishop Peter A Comensoli. He speaks with Christians not only in Australia but also in America, China, Africa and England. The purpose of this second part, Sheridan says, was to prompt people to take a deeper look into the Christian faith.

‘All of these astonishing, wonderful people are all people who are believing Christians. Do you think it could be worth a second look?’

Sheridan also shares some of the hesitations he felt in writing on the subject of Christianity, especially since he is ‘a very public commodity’:

‘One is that you don’t feel morally qualified, but if you leave the discussion to the morally qualified it’ll be a fairly small discussion … And another is you’re a bit worried about how people will react. In my day job I deal with communist China, Donald Trump, and the federal military budget, so those folks aren’t used to me talking about my Christian beliefs.’

Delightfully, both of his most recent books have been warmly received, and he says the most interesting conversations since have been with non-believers.

Belief today

Western Christianity is in an interesting place, Sheridan thinks. ‘I think the culture has turned against Christianity but all we face is an unsympathetic culture,’ he said. ‘We don’t face persecution, not like Christians in China.’ In fact, despite many proclaiming the West to be ‘post-Christian’, Sheridan describes it as, in a way, ‘pre-Christian’:

‘It’s a pagan society, hyper-sexualised, full of abuse, lots of bad things about it. On the other hand, they haven’t been inoculated against Christianity. They haven’t inherited the sneering quality their parents had.’

As a result, even though there is ‘undeniable statistical decline’ in Christian belief, there are also ‘tremendous new movements, new shoots’ that are springing up. This is what Sheridan wanted to pay some attention to in the book, offering signs of hope to people.

Just some of the movements Sheridan devotes time to are these: the Culture Project run by Frances Cantrall in Sydney, working to bring high school students a message of love and hope; Nicky Gumbel in the UK, founder of the Alpha course, a program designed to invite open discussion and questioning among unbelievers and believers alike; former Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson, a believing Christian who hosts a popular conversation channel on a wide range of topics, from culture to religion to politics; and Sammy Rodriguez, a California-based filmmaker (and evangelical pastor) who is dedicated to making good art in film that also reflects Christian themes.

Another Christian leader Sheridan interviews is Melbourne’s Archbishop Peter A Comensoli. Since living in Melbourne, Sheridan has been ‘very impressed with Archbishop Comensoli’s leadership’, which was both ‘striking and strong’, especially when it came to defending the seal of confession against its detractors a few years ago. Throughout their conversation, the Archbishop repeatedly demonstrates this leadership by being forthright about the Church’s situation, recognising that institutions we’ve relied on for so long are broken and new ground needs to be sought to plant the faith.

Christianity and the Arts

The chapter Sheridan is fondest of is called “Smuggling Christ into Popular Culture”. Here, he explores the arts (mostly the narrative arts) and what happens when art cuts itself off from the religious experience. Christian artists find themselves in a tricky situation today. Creating art that reflects Christian themes is a difficult thing, and if not executed well comes across as preachy (arguably a big problem with art that tries to shovel in the latest secular values, too). Sheridan brings something of a reversal to this difficulty.

‘The big challenge is actually for secular art which doesn’t acknowledge God … it does become very dull and repetitive and boring and it always remains at a certain surface level, it doesn’t go into the deepest elements of the human being, it denies itself that whole realm of human experience which is almost universal.’

We have perhaps received a prejudice that deems Christianity a hindrance to art. For Sheridan, this is not the case.

‘The greatest art through all human history has been Christian art. Christianity is not an impediment to great art, but it does require above all else fidelity to the human condition, because God lives in the human heart, and the proper subject of the novel or a narrative art is the deep truth of the human heart, and the deeper you go the more you will find God.’

There are new in-roads revealing themselves. In discussing some mainstream television shows such as Jane the Virgin and Blue Bloods, it becomes clear that a powerful way of exploring Christianity is through exploring immigrant cultures, cultures that hold the promise of renewing Christianity in the West. In dramatising minority cultures for the screen or novel – say, Hispanic culture in Jane the Virgin – you cannot respectfully depict that culture without taking seriously their religious culture.

Unless, of course, you’re making a movie about Tolkien, which Sheridan derides as a ‘ridiculous biopic’ that intentionally ignored ‘the beating heart of his whole life’ – his Catholic faith.

Jesus Hagia Sophia

Politics and Christianity

Some of the figures Sheridan interviews in this book are high-profile political figures (both Labor and Liberal), some retired and some currently in office, including Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Sheridan says in the book that we are far too cynical of our politicians. We don’t often consider the extent to which they wrestle with the moral decisions they make; the weight of their public office. Whether or not we agree with their policies, Sheridan says, it’s important to remember that on ‘a wide array of policy Christianity doesn’t adjudicate.’ It’s possible to be a faithful Christian and vote Labor or Liberal in Australia, Democrat or Republican in America, and Labour or Conservative in England.

As a result, this book is not an ‘issues’ book, he says; ‘I tried very hard for it not to be a left versus right, culture wars book.’

During some time spent in Poland, Sheridan recounted a story where somebody told him that Polish Catholics were ‘very devout and very anti-clerical.’ By “anti-clerical” they didn’t mean they found the priesthood or the sacraments objectionable, but that they recognised in a sensible way the humanity of their leaders, their flesh and blood quality. In Australia, Sheridan remarked, we have that with our politicians ‘to an advanced degree’. What has advanced this cynicism?

‘I think in more recent years it’s been influences like the internet, twenty-four-seven news coverage, the utter sewer of Twitter, the way people get noticed by being high-volume and full of denunciation and full of hatred and spewing out spite all the time … and all politicians attract this.’

In Australia, however, politicians don’t often open up about their faith. This is both good and bad, he says. ‘There’s very little in Australia of public preening about religion. I wish they would own their religion a bit more, but on the other hand I don’t want them to become American in their style of saying “You must support my policy because it’s a Christian policy.”’

Sheridan has known many of these political figures for a long time, some for over forty years. While he admits none of them are saints, he believes most of them genuinely start with a desire to make a difference for their nation. And the ones who are Christian are, in his experience, quite sincere.

Social Media and a Culture of Reading

Despite being a highly respected journalist, something interesting to note about Sheridan is that he doesn’t have any social media accounts. During our conversation he returns to the topic a few times, describing social media as a ‘sewer of endless abuse’. Briefly discussing Douglas Murray’s book, The Madness of Crowds, Sheridan said that the interaction between social media and society was one of the biggest challenges we face today.

‘I do think one of the civilisational challenges we face is making the digital universe civilised … not censoring it, that’s a big problem, you don’t want big tech companies censoring political opinions, but making it obey the rules of the society, rather than making the society live down to its worst excesses.’

A solution to this problem, perhaps, is to promote a culture of reading. Unlike online content, which is fragmented and piecemeal, Sheridan reflects that books offer ‘integrated content’, allowing us to ‘operate at a depth you don’t get through other media.’ Books can have enormous power, he says, citing the success of Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain, a book about one man’s conversion to Catholicism and monastic life that sold millions of copies (600,000 in its first year of publication) and resulted in a steep growth of vocations for the Trappists. That is the kind of influence a great work of art can have.

Restoring our Cultural Memory

At one point in the book, Sheridan describes the West as ‘a culture willing itself into amnesia and ignorance, like a patient carefully requesting their medical records and then burning them.’ Sheridan’s new book is an offering in working to restore our cultural memory, the roots of which lie deep in Christian history. These roots go back to the person of Jesus Christ, his crucifixion, and the revolution that occurred when a tiny sect transformed the face of the ancient world in irreversible ways.

It is, more than anything else, a hopeful book. Sheridan doesn’t back down from acknowledging the challenges Christianity faces in the modern world, but as a journalist he is on the lookout for stories, and these stories are ones of grace, ones that breathe new life into crumbling structures.