Attention, Ladies and Gentlemen: a message from the Sydney University Christian Evangelical Union. Make sure you leave Tuesday 1pm free in order to hear three talks on the Book of Isaiah from the Old Testament of the Bible. Carslaw Lecture Theatre 287 at the inner city Camperdown campus. Bring your lunch and tell your friends ...
AT THE UNIVERSITY of Sydney, one of Australia's oldest secular institutions, students regularly spend their lunchtimes listening to talks on the meaning and importance of the Bible. It's a reality that defies the public stereotype: of uni as a zone of youthful rebellion, free love and political activism. But society has changed dramatically over the past 40 years, as have Australian universities. Most undergraduates spend more time at their part-time jobs than at university. Sydney Uni Evangelical Union (EU) is one of the campus activities that is flourishing, attracting increasing numbers of students to their message: "Jesus Christ is the Lord."
Over three years at Sydney University, I have observed their activities and statements. Initially, the existence of the EU was a shock to me. I began first year imagining my university experience would be similar to my parents' tales. I would join lots of social groups, maybe even work on the university paper, become involved in campus life. I was nervous on the first day of Orientation Week but calmed by the sight of a smiling face at the gates. This smiling face quickly asked if I would like to join the evangelical Christian group, handing me a pamphlet "Jesus Christ is your way to salvation". "No, thankyou," I replied, eager to be free of religion after graduating from a Catholic high school.
The message was more attractive to others. Ryan Smartt, a fellow arts student, was also approached that day, accepted the invitation and has gone on to become president of the EU this year. As I have watched more and more students joining the EU I have asked myself the question: what is so attractive about this brand of Christianity? It commands a strong global following, attracts people of different ethnicities and socio-economic groups. But why? I wondered.
BEFORE I COULD begin the journey to discover its appeal, I had to let go of my antipathy towards the organisation. In second semester 2002, the EU launched its "Absolute God" campaign. It was a major mission organised to deliver the gospel to all the students at university through a series of talks by notable Christian speakers. It aimed to alert students to the role of God in all aspects of their lives. The EU produced a black T-shirt with "Absolute God" written in white on its front. More and more students began to wear these T-shirts, to the extent that one history lecturer asked, "Is 'Absolute God' a new band?"
These black T-shirted people became walking advertisements for Christianity. One afternoon, after a history lecture on Italy in the 1920s, I saw a large group of students wearing their black shirts waiting patiently outside for a talk. I had a flashback to the segment of the lecture that described the coming of Mussolini and his followers wearing black shirts. It is important to insert a disclaimer here: the EU is not a fascist group. But I remember the scene vividly: as the Christian students filed into the large lecture theatre, I was shocked at how many of them there were – it hardly seemed a minority group. I wondered what the reaction would be to a group of 300 Muslim students waiting for a talk on the importance of Islam in the modern world.
My antagonism towards the EU has been tempered by some jealousy. Students involved in the group have developed a broad university friendship network, one that I have not found. I have attended university parties and activities, but have not re-established the sense of community I had at school. The EU is a welcoming group. When I attended public meetings, I was greeted politely and invited to the afternoon tea that followed. EU members were always willing to take time to talk about their beliefs. The Christians I met on my journey were warm, generous and almost impossible to criticise.
Yet their belief system has some major failings: they hold the Bible as infallible, the Word of God final. This breeds a world of insiders and outsiders. Those with an approved lifestyle can publicly associate with Christianity. Those people with biblically unacceptable lifestyles are barred from the community. While the EU god loves all human beings, he does not condone "sinful behaviour". The word "sin" is like a bolt from the past. In my Catholic education we were taught that "sin" left the religious vernacular after Vatican Two in the 1970s. I was raised to believe that a god who recognises sin is a judgemental god, not a loving god.
Angus Belling, the new EU vice-president, argues that Jesus' death on the cross is a punishment for sin in the world. His sacrifice demands a duty to live according to His rules. Belling is clear – admitting that sin and evil exists merely reinforces the importance of Jesus. Smartt spoke of the significance of Christianity and God's love in his life. He mused that he would feel lost in the modern world without his religious beliefs.
Smartt is a community "insider", a believer who has never struggled with his beliefs or questioned his religion. For him, a practising homosexual is an outsider. Belling declared simply that homosexuals cannot be Christians; the Bible is clear that homosexual sex is sinful. He recognises that this view is difficult but believes that homosexuality fundamentally challenges the created order of men and women and sex within marriage. A homosexual should look towards Jesus' love to sustain him or her, he argues. Lauren Bonnor, female vice-president of the EU in 2003, has had to face this personally, as two of her good friends recently became lesbians. I sensed her profound disappointment that her friends can no longer publicly practise their faith. She said that they would always be close friends, despite their sexuality. I was surprised that this experience didn't force her to question her beliefs. She had concluded that the Bible was clear about the sin of homosexuality, and her friends would have to reap the consequences.
THE EU HAS been spreading its message around campus since 1930, but it seems to have particular resonance today. The world has become increasingly characterised by individuals rather than social groups. Postmodernism and post-structuralism have led to more questioning of reality, morality and religion. This seems to have led people to crave meaning and surety. At Sydney Uni, increasing numbers of students have turned to Christianity for a path in life. EU's vigorous publicity has attracted many students, the numbers of members growing by more than ten percent each year over my time on campus. While I found the publicity annoying, Smartt believes it highlights the EU as a purposeful, organised group. Their faith helps students to be active, rather than shy individuals who merely complete academic degrees.
Yet, the dogma of the beliefs contradicts the plurality of a university – a zone that celebrates conflicting ideas and competing theories. University life has taught me that there are no concrete answers to life's questions. In contrast, the EU teaches students about God, biblical truth and how to live according to God's word. It does not tolerate religious diversity. Both Smartt and Belling believe that other major religions are wrong, their claims to salvation misplaced and misrepresented. There is only one way to God, through the love of Jesus Christ. They quickly state that they would always respect people with other religious beliefs even though they disapproved of their faith. But when asked whether he would be offended if someone asked him to separate his faith from his identity, Belling replied: "I wouldn't be offended; I would merely say that I cannot do that. It's not that I won't, I can't. A Muslim might also say the same thing, but from my point of view, I would say that you can because I do not feel that what you believe is the right way to God." His righteousness and surety was disappointing. I was shocked to find two young, intelligent students so assured of their beliefs.
Moments later, Belling delivered a nuanced analysis of the dangers of religious rhetoric being used by politicians. His assessment was based on respect of individual difference and historical context; considerations notably absent from his statements on religious difference. He is angry at the politicians who breach the boundary between faith and politics. There should be a line drawn between church and state, between politics and religion. Bonnor reinforced this sentiment, hoping that Christians never seek to "Christianise" government. She believes that the power of Christianity may be lost on people who don't hold Jesus Christ as their saviour. As a history student, Belling studied the Christian Church in Germany in the 1930s, particularly how the Church was used to legitimise Nazi ideology. He said he is wary of how the Christian faith can be manipulated. He declared with certainty that many Christians are ashamed at what other Christians have said and done in the name of God; possibly, in the same way moderate Muslims felt towards Osama bin Laden for using the term jihad to legitimise political action.
Both Belling and Bonnor resented association of Christians with right-wing politics. The link made sense to me. I see evangelical Christianity as applauding conservatism. But they were troubled by this; they voted for the political party that represented their interests: Belling was unsure about the benefits of a full privatisation of Telstra; Bonnor closely followed the Iraq War and Australia's struggle with asylum seekers. Belling enjoyed the constructive dialogue emerging from political disagreements with his Christian friends. Their religious views assisted them in their political decision making; these views did not mean they were affiliated to any particular political party.
This will be a particularly vigorous year for the EU as it celebrates its 75th anniversary, with continuous activities to publicise evangelical Christianity and the EU. The campaign will run all year, with three weeks of intense activity similar to the "Absolute God" campaign. At a recent public meeting, staff member Mike Kwan urged his receptive audience to stand firm in the face of criticism. He warned that they may be mocked for their beliefs but assured them that their critics were simply jealous of their assurance. Not surprisingly, EU members have little time for self-questioning or introspection. Their faith promotes an "us and them" mentality that stresses difference rather than acceptance. The EU has many desirable qualities, but its black and white value system does little to mend divisions or encourage empathy.