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Interviewer: Michael Costigan
17/05/2012: Sydney Writers Festival

The hub and hubbub of the Sydney Writers Festival centred on the Walsh Bay wharves.

Inside a warehouse Geoffrey Blainey, eyes twinkling, likened the rough timber walls to a shearing shed. “I’m the one to be shorn!” he said.

Blainey’s inspiration for A Short History of Christianity was self-motivated. Despite his own evangelical background, he found the language of theologians and the church difficult to understand.  In order to explain Christianity to others, he needed first to explain it to himself.

“I wrote the book as an historian, not as an enthusiast, evangelist or apologist,” he said.

Literacy bred diversity

The diversity of Christianity is its strength, Blainey said.

Islam does not have the same diversity as the Koran is a smaller work than the many-authored Old and New Testaments. The number of authors and Bible translations provide a greater scope for argument.

“Often unity is a sign of weakness. The Uniting Church turned weakness to strength through combination,” Blainey said.

Before Protestants, the debates were Catholic versus Orthodox. Within Catholicism, each reform movement was called an “order”.

Whilst Francis of Assisi had an affinity with nature, where the Franciscan order was successful it became rich.  Money was given to the monastery as a source of welfare. In some countries, the church owned more property than the monarchy.

“How do you reconcile wealth with social justice?” Blainey asked.

“The reformation led to a counter-reformation. …The Catholics should take more pride in reform. Reformation began with intelligent Catholics. Luther got away with it.”

Literacy seeds democracy

The Reformation’s importance was literacy: girls and boys could read the Bible and render their own interpretation of it.

“This first major step led to profound democratic reformation,” he said.

“The Greek democracy was gone by then. Shouting, rather than shooting, is to our eternal credit in Canberra. Although we should shout less, of course.”

The Protestants voted for their ministers – an unexpected innovation. And, the people would choose a parliament.

Prophecy: the ability to listen

The Christian church was influenced by Judaism and one of its duties: prophecy. “Any diagnosis is a prophecy. There is always a place for it,” he said.

“Was Pope John Paul II the most important Christian since St Paul or St Francis? He travelled the world and was not afraid.”

Christian views on human nature are both positive and negative. The tragedy of Christianity came from the continual improvements in health and education in the 1800s.

“By 1900, Germany, the “most civilised”, created an unimaginable devastation.”

Oracy versus Theatre

The decline of the preacher (and oracy) leads to a decline in attendance, he said.

“Americans are less good at oracy. Australian students are better at prose and speaking.

“Christianity in the pulpit is very important. Church is a theatre. The Catholics have retained the theatre because it is more popular. Protestantism depends heavily on the spoken word.”

Michael Costigan’s contribution

On 24 December, 496, St Remigius, Archbishop of Reims, baptised 3,000 including the King of the Franks. The baptism of the Franks led to the introduction of Christmas.

The event was not in the book as Geoffrey Blainey said: “I did not know about it!”