As a wobbly sounding plane flies over head through the cloud and light rain of an early Leichhardt morning, I consider another staple of inner west life, the Inner West Courier.
It has thrown up a spiritual conundrum, a coded message of religious reality in our time. Actually, it’s just demonstrating the bleeding obvious…
On page 12 of the August 31 edition, a story celebrates the awarding of the Australian Writers Guild Kit Denton Fellowship Award to Petersham resident George Casti for his script I Want to be Slim.
Great, I think. Good to see some local talent being rewarded and $30,000 can make all the difference as a writer seeks to stave off poverty and establish their craft.
I read on to see what his script is about: ‘…award judged on courage and excellence… Catsi’s “anti-Hillsong” script won… religion is a very polarised area… satirical script is about the Rev Slim Limits and his performance in getting the masses to follow his evangelical ways.’
Mmm, so George gets $30,000 to perfect his script, poking fun, in a courageous and excellent way, at a section of society that, obviously, it is perfectly appropriate to ridicule. The Courier report is matter-of-fact, as if we shouldn’t be surprised that a local church is award-winning, satire material.
Four pages on, the same impeccably impartial publication, again matter-of-factly, announces that readers can ‘Win tickets to spiritual retreat’.
By now I’m assuming we are still being satirical as the article invites people to write in 25 words why they would like to attend the three-day Soul Healing and Enlightenment Retreat featuring no less than ‘a supportive, life-changing environment with spiritual masters as guides’.
I chuckle about what I might write in my 25 words and then realise their serious! Who are these ‘spiritual masters’, what qualifications do they have to guide anyone spiritually and how are they objectively more worthy for uncritical support than the evangelicals hung out to dry four pages earlier? (I’ve checked them out but that’s another story.)
Whingeing aside, my real point is not to sound high and mighty, which I’m not, but to flag another example of how the religious landscape is changing, or in the case of inner Sydney, has changed. On one hand, respect for the institutional church is gone, while a church that seeks to modernise and compete on the same terms as popular culture, is lambasted as shallow and manipulative.
At the same time, being spiritual is quite popular and providing it resembles nothing like Christianity, even the new atheists will find room for it as a cultural attraction (Sydney Writers Festival being a case in point). In this case, a retreat offering self-styled eastern religion is casually approved without question.
Which is why people of Christian faith need to be confident of who they are, secure enough to roll with the punches, intelligent enough to dialogue across changing paradigms, creative and courageous enough to speak into the artistic world and gentle enough to avoid whingeing like me. Mostly, we need to be authentic in our walk with God and realise that Jesus was not exactly well received and yet his grassroots influence was powerful, and unending.
Footnote: Casti acknowledged that writing a script on religion was challenging as there were polarised views and it is a very personal issue (hence my blog). The Australian Writers Guild website gives more details of the script and their view of it:
‘George Catsi was inspired by his experience as a teenage volunteer for the evangelist Billy Graham’s famous Randwick meeting and his Greek Orthodox mother’s decision to become a born again Baptist, to create the comedy act Gods Cowboys. I Want to be Slim, is a morality tale centred on the Rev Slim Limits, leader of ‘The Church of the Holy Cowboy’, a satirical organisation that parallels the American Evangelical style churches, with references to Hillsong.’
‘AWF President Geoffrey Atherden AM said that fellowships like this were invaluable in encouraging brave new works.
“I wish there were more like Andrew Denton [Kit Denton, after whom the award is named, was Andrew Denton’s father] and his co-sponsors willing to give such wholehearted support to a writer with a challenging idea.”
Challenging idea… I haven’t seen the script but the idea doesn’t seem challenging, it seems politically correct. Hillsong and similar churches are seen as fair game, sitting ducks, ripe targets… what other cliches can I use… for being torn down and ridiculed – mostly with no attempt to understand.
I think a really challenging idea for someone like Casti, would be to have written a sympathetic, complex and three dimensional portrayal of an evangelical Christian and their church, defying the easy stereotypes. But of course, that would be so challenging it would never win an award… Correct me if I’m wrong someone.