by Greg Spearritt
The Centre for Public Christianity (CPX) has been embraced with worrying enthusiasm by the mainstream Australian media (notably the Fairfax press and that bastion of critical thought, the ABC) and glowingly endorsed by our highest publicly-elected official. What CPX comes out with is portrayed as “the Christian” point of view, and one bolstered by rigorous scholarship to boot.
According to co-founder and director Dr John Dickson, CPX aims to “promote the public understanding of the Christian faith [meaning good ‘ol Nicean orthodoxy, of course] using the best of scholarship by the best of media, which basically means a lot of good, intelligent noise for Christianity in the public sphere”.
Best of scholarship? What he actually means is the best of scholarship that a Moore Theological College-trained Sydney Anglican can bring himself to accept.
A sample of what you can expect from CPX – the “best of scholarship”:
- Speaking to John Cleary on the ABC, Dickson claims: “The historical core of the birth narratives is a Bethlehem birth.” (This is well-known to be considered of dubious historicity among biblical scholars.)
- “Bizarrely, 31% of Australians think that Jesus lived ‘B.C’—before he was born, so to speak.” - From a CPX press release. (Scholarly consensus is that Jesus was in fact born around 4 or 5 BCE.)
· Teaching about world religions at Macquarie Christian Studies Institute in 2008, Dickson avers that in Australia “over 70% of the population describes itself as ‘Christian' ”. 2006 Census figures published in 2007 show that the actual figure is 64%.
- Dr John in this film trailer proclaims that “around 5%” of people are atheists. It may (or may not) be true worldwide, but it’s well and truly wide of the mark for most Western countries. Adherents.com gives figures of over 20% for more than 30 countries, including Australia (at 24-25%). Other sources, too, give figures for places like Australia that are much higher than 5%. What ‘atheist’ means is a moot point, of course, but in the 2006 Australian Census, 19% stated “no religion”.
CPX has given us an Easter present: a documentary titled Life of Jesus, due to be aired on Channel 7 at 1pm on Good Friday.
It beings with the question: “What happens when the theologians hand over the New Testament to the historians?”. The answers to that, if the trailer is anything to go by, suggest the historians in question (including Dr John himself) might also happen to be Christians. There seems to be a tendency to blur theology (or Christology) and history.
Co-founder and co-director of CPX, Greg Clarke had this to say about Life of Jesus in an opinion piece on the ABC news site:
There is a Jesus who can be explored through history. I have just finished working with colleagues on a six-episode documentary on the life of Jesus, filmed in Israel, that looks at what mainstream historians agree upon in the historical record of Jesus and there's plenty. In fact, in The Historical Figure of Jesus, Duke University historian, Professor EP Sanders goes so far as to say: "There are no substantial doubts about the general course of Jesus' life" (p.11). I do wish the outspoken atheists of our time would give a little respect to the historians on this question.
Perhaps the outspoken Christians of CPX need to give a little more respect to what Sanders has to say elsewhere in The Historical Figure. For example, about the gospels: “There are no sources that give us the ‘unvarnished truth’; the varnish of faith in Jesus covers everything” (p. 73).
They could also give a little more respect to the Australian public – who subsidise the ‘Centre’ through the tax deductibility of donations to it – by not pretending that all Christians think alike. Theologically and socially conservative Christians are but one strand in Australian Christianity.
Swimming against the tide - evangelicals can't help themselves - they see what they want to see.
This particular (Easter) weekend just dramatizes for me the absurdity of the traditional interpretation (they'd call it the facts) of accounts of the crucifixion and resurrection.
I just wonder how many preachers intend what they say to be taken metaphorically rather than literally this weekend. We might be very surprised at the percentage.
It's time they came out.
Posted by Scott McKenzie
Everyone, not just evangelicals, sees what they want to see. Perhaps one of the more recent, more spectacular and entirely secular examples is that of the financial gurus who saw that growth could go on forever. To see what you do not want to see requires discipline, integrity, insight and often a little humility.
And with regard to those clergymen who speak in metaphors about whom you assert “It is time they came clean.” Of course, unsupported assertions are easy to make. They are the stuff of politics, advertising and the church. All too often they are the product of the manipulative and aimed at the uncritical. Neither of these will, I hope, figure prominently in the Sea of Faith constituency. To be taken seriously such statements must be the result of logical thought, based where possible on substantiated fact.
I would be interested to read the analysis of the sociological, ethical and pragmatic pros and cons which you have considered in arriving at this conclusion. It is a difficult and complicated area as is demonstrated in some thoughtful essays by Bernhard Schlink who has considerable experience in this area as a result of his practice in constitutional law in post-holocaust Germany. (Bernhard Schlink “Guilt about the Past” University of Queensland Press) They are fascinating and challenging reading.
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