Avril at Romsey

… and Lancefield and Riddells Creek and Mount Macedon

Letter to The Age – extended dance mix

Well, despite numerous vows made in the past, I responded to a letter in yesterday’s Age about religion. And my response was published. Naturally, since I had gone into essay/sermon mode, it was severely edited. So, for those of you who may have seen the published version, here is the original. And the letter I was responding to is here.


Dear Editor

The letters page of The Age is not the place to debate theology, but the breathtaking intellectual dishonesty of the letter by Nigel Sinnott had me choking on my toast. He seems to have trawled through the synoptic gospels with an eye to any verse that, taken completely out of context, could be made to seem support “authoritarian, tremble-and-obey” religion.

 To put a couple of those verses back in context: Jesus, as a good Jewish teacher, frequently used Semitic hyperbole. The paradigmatic example of this was, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away.” (Matt 5:29) It’s not meant to be taken literally; it’s exaggeration to make a point.

In the same way, the verse quoted by Mr Sinnott about hating one’s family (Luke 14:26) is an exaggeration made to establish that there are higher priorities in life than families. This is a message that Australians need to hear, as our government encourages us to worship “Australian families”, particularly our own, at the expense of the environment, the poor of the world, and even other Australians.

Then there is the verse Mr Sinnott cites as a splendid pretext for forced conversion, Luke 14:23. It comes at the end of a parable, a story, told by Jesus in which someone gives a great dinner and invites many people who make excuses: they have bought land; they have bought oxen; they have just been married. So the host sends his servant to invite “the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame”. When they come, there is still room, so the servant is sent to compel all those in the roads and lanes to come. This is the kingdom of God, says Jesus, a place the wealthy and happy may reject, but where the poor and marginalised are welcome and fed.

There are legitimate reasons to criticise Christians. Whenever Christianity is used to justify violence, for example, we need to be reminded that Jesus allowed himself to be crucified rather than coming as a conqueror.

Whenever we prioritise wealth we need to be reminded that Jesus said, “Blessed are you who are poor” and “Woe to you who are rich”.

Whenever we use our faith as an excuse for discrimination on the basis of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, economic status, we need to be reminded that Jesus ate with sinners and tax-collectors, healed lepers, touched the dead, and accepted a cup of water from a Samaritan women.

Whenever we fail to live up to the central message of Christianity, to love God and our neighbour as ourselves, by all means criticise us. But don’t sacrifice your intellectual integrity to score points against us.

Dr Avril Hannah-Jones


July 6, 2007 - Posted by | Life, etc.


  1. An arguement that keeps needing to be made in the current climate where bashing Christianity is the new black. Well made points, but I feel a need to ‘tremble’ before your superior intellect, if not obey it as well.

    Comment by Pete | July 6, 2007 | Reply

  2. Ooh, yes, “obey” my so-called “superior intellect”. Hmm, what could I tell you to do? Something involving your firstborn child I think.

    I figure that all the Christian bashing is happening because, to the absolute horror of many good atheists, we have not disappeared. There are still Christians around the place worshipping a divine being and ordering our lives by religious precepts, even in twenty-first century Australia. This freaks a lot of people out.

    Comment by avrilhj | July 6, 2007 | Reply

  3. And what would you have my theoretical firstborn do? Hmmmm?
    Anyway, not only do we worship a divine being, we follow a religion that wants to put others first. Quite freaky indeed.

    Comment by Pete | July 6, 2007 | Reply

  4. Well put, and they did a good job of editing it, too, which is nice.

    I think there is great consternation amongst atheists when they come across Christians who are capable of articulating their faith in ways that don’t require turning one’s brain off. The way they deal with it is to quote the mindless position as though it is what all Christians believe.

    Comment by Judy Redman | July 6, 2007 | Reply

  5. This is the kingdom of God, says Jesus, a place the wealthy and happy may reject, but where the poor and marginalised are welcome and fed.
    This is wonderful. I don’t know you, and I’m neither Australian nor Christian, but I think what you’ve written is beautiful.

    Would you mind if I linked to this from my journal? I’m an atheist, but I occasionally post about religion/spirituality.

    Comment by Jimena | July 6, 2007 | Reply

  6. Gosh! Angry Avril! I haven’t seen you get so worked up since the last election when you threw a cushion at someone. To be fair to Nigel, it’s hard to criticise someone for taking a section of the bible out of context to make a point when various brands of christianity have been doing the same thing for centuries, and continue to do so today. Still, you squashed him good.

    Comment by Alex Murphy | July 7, 2007 | Reply

  7. It’s totally fair to criticise Nigel for taken quotations out of context. Just because various brands of christianity lack intellectual rigour when using sections of the Bible, this doesn’t let critics of the hook if they commit the same mistake. If they want to be taken seriously then they should do some homework, or at least show that they have done some.

    Comment by Pete | July 9, 2007 | Reply

  8. Agreed to a point Pete- it’s fair for christians to criticise him- but only to the same level and extent that they criticise members of their own faith who make such “errors.” If you sat back and let Pell and 2/5 of the USA get away with it, you can’t pipe up now just because Nigel clearly isn’t religious. He should be criticised for his lack of rigour, his selectivity and his “breathtaking intellectual dishonesty” and on that (secular) basis alone.

    Comment by Alex | July 24, 2007 | Reply

  9. Hmmm. I see where you’re coming from, but because I don’t care what Pell or 2/5 of the USA say about Christianity, I don’t bother criticising them. They have no impact on my faith, just as I have none on theirs. In all these debates it comes down to the same problem. So let’s face it religion isn’t the problem, literalism is.

    Comment by Pete | July 26, 2007 | Reply

  10. Hmmm, I can see where you’re coming from, but seeing as I don’t care what Pell or 2/5 of the USA say I don’t spend valuable time criticising them. They don’t appear on my faith ‘radar’ just as I don’t appear on theirs, and I’m happy to keep it that way.
    I feel quite happy criticising secular critics of religion who make the same intellectual mistakes as certain religious figures (an intellectual mistake is a mistake no matter who makes it), just as I don’t see a clear divide between secular or religious, these two aspects of life are deeply entwined. It usually comes down to the same problem anyway, critics blame religion for what some followers do, when it isn’t religion to blame but literalism.

    Comment by Pete | July 26, 2007 | Reply

  11. OK, so Pete agree that literalism is the problem. Why then are differnt examples of literalism to be treated differantly? While obviosuly you are they only person able to comment on what you find relevent, I’m not sure it’s sufficient to use this as a shield to enable different treatment of the same conduct. If our considered position is that literalism is the root problem, then it should be condemmed at all stages.

    If anything, Pell etc. should provoke more forceful examination- not only because of the greater market they reach, but also behave the benefits of a scholarly tradition and an academic and theological education. Such literalism is, if anything worse, because it represents intellectual dishonesty rather than mere ignorance. Both should be pointed out.

    I do take your point that literalism should be criticised, not religion. However, this is precisely my point. Being within a religious tradition is not a shield preventing examination of the intellectual processes behind religious pronouncements. Note that in my previous comment I did not say that christians should be criticised, but two examples of people who escape sufficient scrutiny.

    Often I feel that Christians are happy enough to cry foul at theological “errors” from outside their faith, while accepting as different intepretations the often quite extreme rhetoric of other factions sects and churches.

    Fortunately Avril is in the clear either way- she’s been railing against extremism, whether in cassock or jackboot, for as long as I’ve known her. So may we all.

    Comment by Alex | July 26, 2007 | Reply

  12. I don’t advocate different treatment of the same conduct. All literalism should be condemned, as I don’t belive religious tradition is any type of shield. I personally don’t spend time criticising Pell etc. because I have little interest in what they have to say in the first place, and don’t see that changing any time soon. I would rather combat literalism in the world around me rather than ranting against someone (ie Pell) who doesn’t know I exist. (I find personal discussions more friutful than large public demonstrations.) This is not to criticise Avril’s letter in any way, it’s just not my style. On to other matters, Christians are as likely to commit intellectual errors as anyone else and should be shown these errors, just as followers of a religion that emphasises love should be appalled at some of the extreme rhetoric it produces. But if people are going to comment on any subject they should at least show some knowledge of that topic.

    Comment by Pete | July 27, 2007 | Reply

  13. Pete, Alex, much as I’m enjoying your continuing debate on my blog (at leats this way I knwo someone reads it!) I do feel that I should invite you both (with significant others) up here to Romsey, provide the wine and chocolate and let you discuss this face to face. How about it sometime?

    PS. Love you both.

    Comment by Avril | July 27, 2007 | Reply

  14. Pete,

    Much as I’ve enjoyed this, I think we actually agree on the central issues- hypocrisy, literalism, ignorance = bad. Although I personally comment frquently on Chrstianity, without any knowledge whatsoever, as Avril can attest…

    Comment by Alex | July 28, 2007 | Reply

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