Even the most cursory knowledge of world history, and particularly of church history, reveals that times are no stormier now than they have ever been. We talk of stormy times, but perhaps what that reveals more than anything is the fact that we have higher expectations than we used to, so that we are surprised and even outraged by hard times. It is also caused by 24/7 around-the-globe media which means that we have immediate and intrusive access to all the bad news happening pretty well everywhere.
Times are no more stormy now than they have ever been. And yet ... There is a different quality to our storms than there has been in the past. Two things contribute to this. First: it is now a reality, even a likelihood, that we will destroy our planet. Second: we no longer have an assumed, central narrative that informs and inspires what we think, say and do.
As Christian writers, editors and journalists, we are called to be the best writers, editors and journalists that we can be. We are also called to share good news for all seasons. But the good news that we are compelled to share is not some saccharine, cheesy thing. Nor is it moral outrage, judgment on 'the world', or setting everybody right (as if we could!) because we have some sort of direct line to God. Nor is it triumphalism, or something we are all heartily sick of on this election day, spin.
So what is it?
I have a theory that artists of all stripes, including writers, have three jobs in the world, and they are all to do with helping to see things from a different angle, in a different light. One is to name and critique the evils in the society they live in, whether that society be repressively fascist or crassly materialistic. Another is to tell the stories of the little people that the world ignores. A third is to remind people of wonder.
There are, however, plenty of other journalists out there doing a pretty good job of critiquing our society. And also telling the stories of the little people. And even reminding us of the abundance of life and beauty in the world.
What is different about Christian journos, with our little, tin pot publications that are often slightly daggy and lame and embarrassing? What do we have to offer that other media don't? The only distinctive thing is that we do these things as people of the Christian story, a story that suggests, despite evidence to the contrary, that somehow, and we have no idea how, the last word in this life of ours, in this universe of ours is the same as the first word, and it is a Word of love.
How do we, as Christian writers, draw inspiration for our three jobs?
When it comes to naming the wrongs that need to be named: we are in the tradition of the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures who courageously named systemic and individual corruption and violence and we follow the one who drove the money lenders from the temple and who was killed because of the way he criticized the religious, political and financial powerbrokers of his day.
When it comes to telling the stories of the forgotten ones, we are in the tradition of Jesus who took children on his knee, ate with despised tax collectors, welcomed women as his disciples, touched lepers and accepted the ministrations of Samaritans and prostitutes. We are called to tell the stories that might not otherwise be told – of marginal people doing surprising and extraordinary things, of courage and sacrifice and cheerfulness and love that reveals moments of grace, moments of the breaking in of the Kingdom of God, often where we least expect it.
When it comes to reminding a cynical and jaded world about wonder, we follow the one who said, 'Consider the lilies of the field. They neither toil nor spin and yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his glory was clothed as one of these'. We are called to reveal the sacred in the mundane, to help other Christians and all people to see the places that the Holy Spirit breaks into the world. With the combination of our faith and our writer's attention to every sensuous detail, noticing things, reveling in the crazy riot of life, we are uniquely placed to help others who are feeling the storm, see where God is active in the world.
All of us here are speaking/writing into an Australian/New Zealand context. And there is a glorious mix of religious faiths in this part of the world, thanks be to God. I suspect, however, that most of us in this room are mainly addressing Christians and agnostics or atheists. Our words wing their way out into a fiercely secular and materialistic society.
And mainstream Australian society is crying out for stillness, for depth, for compassion, for courage. As Christians we believe that the creator God is involved with and cares about this world, that the God revealed most fully in the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth shows us how to live, and that somehow, through the presence of the Holy Spirit, we can tap in to that big love that is at the Centre of the universe.
We are people of the story; the story is what we gather around every week in our places of worship and wrestle with and are comforted by as we engage in private devotions. But it is a story couched in ancient words. And it's our responsibility to make the story accessible. To do this, we need to engage with that story in a way that is intelligent, critical, contextual, imaginative, faithful and prayerful.
We certainly won't always feel storm proof. We will all experience seasons of weariness and despair. What are the things that help to keep us storm proof, or, to use another weather metaphor, that fill up our tanks in preparation for drought? Our story is an ancient one, but it is not just an old story: it continues and we are part of it. And we tap into it through worship, through diligent reading, through being part of the Christian community that we all need and that needs us, talking to others, above all, by developing the habit of attentive prayer.
All we have that is distinctive is the story we gather around, an ancient but ever new story that starts with the Hebrew Scriptures and continues in the stories of Jesus and of the early church. It is the story of the Triune God who made us, who lived with us and who is with us still. It is the story of a human God who lived and died and defeated death. It is the story of a resurrection God from whom we draw, not optimism or cheeriness, but hope, hope that can withstand the storm. Hope that the last word in this universe is the same as the first word, and that Word is Love.
Clare Boyd-Macrae is a freelane writer who has had more than 100 reflective pieces published in The Age over the past 12 years. Collections of these have been made into two books, Three Gates to Paradise and The Whole Shebang, both published by Clouds of Magellan. She presented the above talk the during the 2013 Australiasian Religious Press Association Conference, Marriott Hotel, Melbourne, 3–5 September 2013. Clare's blog