Every episode of ABC TV’s Q&A brings up issues of concern to Australians. When a Christian appears on the program, it’s usually a signal that religion, a topic as much taboo as it is important for many Australians, is the issue under the microscope on a program characterised by the ABC as ‘adventures in democracy’
The recent appearance of John Dickson of the Centre for Public Christianity, and last year's appearance by Archbishop Peter Jensen, are examples of Christianity stepping into prime time conversation, if only for an hour. Dr Dickson and cosmologist Lawrence Krauss generated a night’s worth of conversation around the relationship of religion and science, but for some, the flash-in-the-pan character of much of this discussion is a point of frustration.
New Kind of Conversation
“I don’t like things like Q&A because it takes really big issues and trivialises them,” says Moore College Head of Ministry Rev Archie Poulos. “That is, as I am listening to an argument, my eyes are following the twitter feed, and so I come in and out of what’s going and the louder voice is the Twitter feed.
“Secondly, a person might be speaking, and then a second person interrupts. This damages logical argument, extended discussion. This is my problem, I’m admitting to that. We train ourselves and others to be able to go into extended logical argument. That’s not the way Q&A works, but neither is that the way our society works now, either. “
Given the short time frame and the large amount of ground that is often covered, the main advantage, according to Mr Poulos, is in breaking down the stock image of how a Christian should act.
“I think what John did was disarm the atheists who were out there. Most people have a caricature of what Christians believe, and who they are. I think what John did was challenge that, and the way it was challenged, because there is no long discourse you can have, was by having an open stance. Of course, he did much more than this, but it was the open stance he took, that is vulnerable, and listens... and I think that he was fantastic in doing that.”
Dr David Höhne, Lecturer in Theology, Philosophy and Church History at Moore, agrees and says that prime time events like Q&A do have at least an indirect effect on evangelism, by encouraging Christians.
“What I have noticed is that, as with all these sorts of things, just seeing a Christian deport themselves well in public seems to me to be a great shot in the arm,” he says. “Certainly, i’ve noticed among my [college] students that everyone feels a little braver, and therefore, and I hate to say it this way, but it kind of gives you confidence in the brand.
“I’ve also spent the last three weeks in our friday chapel preaching sermons that were in response to Dawkins' series on SBS, ‘Sex, Death and the Meaning of Life’. So we’ve had a bit of a buzz about that kind of stuff at college, and I’m please to see it makes everyone seem braver.”
Too Many Silver Bullets
So it seems clear that, as one viewer, Craig Schwarze noted, “Anything that puts Christianity in the popular media in an attractive way is good, I reckon.”
However, Dr Höhne also suggests that, while it can be encouraging to have Christians in these big events, we must also be careful not to view them as being some super-charged tool for evangelism.
“I’m also always a little cautious about the Christian propensity for tools. ‘Is this the tool, is this the silver bullet’?” he says. “Well the answer is no, there is no silver bullet which is going to deliver unrestricted unhindered access to everyone’s heart, such that you can speak a few words and the masses wil be slain. Christians can tend to be very faddish.
“So, participate in Q&A, don’t participate in Q&A. The secret to changing people’s lives is praying that God will have mercy on people’s lives and that His Spirit will open their hearts.”
Part of the problem of using Q&A as an engagement and evangelism tools, says Mr Poulos, also has to do with the medium, and how Christians are used to thinking about evangelism. Q&A might, in some ways, not be conducive to deep and meaningful discussion, but that’s a reality we just have to deal with.
“What I’m saying is you can’t blame Q&A for that, it’s simply not the world we live in anymore,” says Mr Poulos. “Q&A is really entertainment, and it’s also trying to democratise everything, which is what the blogging world is also trying to do.
“So I want to say that my frustration has to do with being a dinosaur. I like the idea of extended argument, but this type of program is more skewed towards entertainment... But, if we’re going to be involved in the world today, we need to learn to do it [to discuss in short bursts]. We have taught people to engage in long term discourse, and I don’t want to lose that other aspect, but this is the world that we live in.”
One strategy, suggests Mr Poulos, is for Christians to think actively and intentionally in advance about how to start conversations with friends when the program is still in the public mindset.
“We need to work out who we’re going to have discussions with tomorrow, and how we are going to do that. As the program’s concluding, I should be thinking about who I can talk to, how I could talk about it, and commit it to prayer. Now, I didn’t do that, but that’s what I think we should be doing now. ”
“There’s an element where the sense of the show can extend beyond a few days, but I think the particulars of what’s been said get lost very quickly. Not just from this Q&A, but generally.”
He also adds that he’s still having conversations with non-Christian friends about last year’s Q&A featuring Archbishop Peter Jensen, and that it is most often the Archbishop’s temperament that is remembered.
“So I think it is the responsibility of Christian people after the event, when people have had their presuppositions challenged, then we need to be ready to explain what we believe. I think John did a very helpful thing for us by saying that not every Christian was anti science,” he says.
“The gospel’s not a slogan,” says Dr Höhne. “As much as I like to produce short aphorisms like that, evangelism is not a marketing campaign. It’s apologetic people living beautiful lives before the Gentiles, so that when they see our good deeds they’ll honour God when he comes, as 1 Peter 2 says.”