De-Christianising NZ II: pervasive Christian presence

Introduction

In De-Christianising New Zealand I: a re-colonisation, I said “Like it or not, Christianity is a critical dimension of ‘who’ New Zealand is” and that de-Christianisation “will uproot New Zealand’s identity”. 

The pervasive presence and significance of Christianity is evident in many ways – from the way we structure our lives, to the way we speak, to the way we think.

This article describes some of the more obvious aspects of what I have in mind.  (Another article or two will follow.)  There is so much to say about the obvious influence of Christianity that this article will unavoidably read rather like a list.

It’s, like, a list

There are churches everywhere!  Some are disused, heritage listed, or repurposed either by Christian communities or by others as art galleries, restaurants or even private homes; but the great majority are still operating.

It is the year 2021 because it is that many years since Jesus.  Although we have replaced “AD” (Anno Domini, the Year of Our Lord) with “CE” (the common era), this common era exists due to the global significance of Christianity.

Years and months are defined by the movements of our planet and its moon, but our 7-day week is Judeo-Christian.

Our Easter break and the focus of our summer break on Christmas are Christian.  It makes no difference that these festivals were superimposed over earlier, northern hemisphere pagan festivals: their significance in New Zealand is Christian. 

Our most familiar constellation is called the Southern Cross, not the Southern Diamond, because of the central importance of the cross to Christianity.  The cross is so important to Christianity that we use it to describe how any thing is of central importance to anything else – that it is “crucial”, or “the crux” of the matter. 

The top-left corner of New Zealand’s flag is not just about Great Britain in a geopolitical sense: the Union Jack cannot be explained without reference to the Christian saints it represents.

Until only 2 or 3 decades ago, a person’s personal name was called their “Christian” name.  Countless personal names come from:

  • the Bible (both Testaments) – eg Adam, Eve, Noah, Sarah, Joshua, Deborah, Isaac, Rebecca, David, Ruth, Jacob, Hannah, Daniel, Rachel, Karen, Miriam, Mary, Joseph, Anna, Peter, Martha, John, Phoebe, Matthew, Elizabeth, James, Julia, Andrew, Chloe, Luke, Stephen, Lois, Thomas, Joanna, Paul and many, many more;
  • saints – eg Francis, Theresa, Dominic, Brigid, Patrick, Clare, Edward, Emily and many, many more;
  • angels – eg Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, even Angela/Angelo;
  • virtues and other concepts – eg Grace, Gloria, Faith, Hope, Mercy, Xavier.

Until relatively recently, swearing on the Bible was the only means of guaranteeing honesty.  It is still used, though no longer exclusively.  Even informally, to guarantee the truth of what they are saying, people will “swear” that it is true.

It is generally known that Biblical and other Christian concepts and references have pervaded English literature from its very beginning; unfortunately, it is beyond my competence to describe this in any detail.  Christianity also pervades our spoken language, including our vernacular.  To illustrate:

  • Heaven and Hell, free will, original sin, Adam & Eve, the Ten Commandments, Gospel truth, Judgment Day, mercy, forgiveness, salvation, redemption, the Holy Trinity (Father, Son & Holy Spirit), the Church;
  • “good” is Olde English for God;
  • we describe situations, things and people as divine, heavenly, angelic, saintly, hellish, purgatorial, devilish/fiendish/diabolical/demonic;
  • we give the Devil his due and discern him lurking in the detail;
  • we swear, bless, curse and damn, and describe profoundly precious things as sacred;
  • we speak of being a good Samaritan, a good shepherd, a lost sheep, a sacrificial lamb, a martyr, a prodigal son, a Judas or a Pontius Pilate;
  • we speak of being “crucified” when treated unfairly, of being resurrected (or res’d) in a computer game, of being treated like a leper, of casting the first stone, casting pearls before swine, living & dying by the sword;
  • an authoritative source of information and instruction is often referred to as the “bible” of a field of knowledge: the surgeon’s bible, the bread-making bible (etc);
  • we love our neighbour, including our enemy, and we consider the meek, the merciful and peacemakers (among others) to be blessed;
  • a very particular beloved is the apple of my eye;
  • we teach children to honour their mother & father;
  • we are wary of pride (which goes before a fall), money (the love of which is the root of evil) and forbidden fruit;
  • a reason not to judge others is the knowledge I may be no better: “There but for the grace of God go I”;
  • we appraise a person’s character by reference to their actions, because a tree is known by its fruit;
  • we describe a good person as the salt of the earth; we warn bad actors that they will reap what they sow; we warn of an imminent ending by referring to the writing on the wall; we describe strict, harsh justice as “an eye for an eye”; we see vengeance as the Lord’s not ours, it is preferable to turn the other cheek; we take refuge in a santuary;
  • when 2 people think the same, we say there has been a marriage of minds, while we advise warring couples not to let the sun go down on their anger;
  • we describe a person who is morally conceited as believing they can walk on water or, in an extreme case, as having a messianic complex (or, if their conceit is about self-sacrifice, a martydom complex);
  • we describe uncultured people as Philistines, very unequal contests as “David and Goliath” situations, dangerous places one enters voluntarily as lion’s dens and self-righteous assertions as pharasaical;
  • days off are still called holy days (almost), while longer periods might be called sabatticals (after the Sabbath, the biblical day of rest);
  • a long list might be a litany; something that prompts a memory “rings a bell”;
  • startling news is a revelation, an unexpected good result is miraculous, enormous phenomana are biblical in proportion (or, on a bad day, apocalyptic), a harsh initiation is a baptism of fire, the highest award or achievement in a field of effort is that field’s holy grail;
  • OMG, TGIF, Godzone.

There is much more, of course: I’ve only mentioned what has come to mind.  The point is, Christianity pervades New Zealand.  This is true, whether or not Christianity is true or good and whether or not you like it.

Not all references to Christianity (and Christ) are positive.  In fact, negative references are also pervasive, and that pervasiveness also supports the point I’m making here. 

These references range from bible bashing, God bothering, being delusional (and polyphobic), being holier than thou, Catholic guilt, Pope jokes and pontificating to “OMFG”, “For f***’s sake”, “Holy s**t”, “Jeezuz!”, “Jesus Christ!”, “Jesus f******g Christ”, “Christ on a stick”, “They beat the bejeezus out of him”, etc.  In addition to this casual but brutal contempt for Christianity, for the person of Jesus Christ and for those who claim an association with Him, there is the very serious and determined hostility to be found in some other theistic religions, in Satanism and in aggressive forms of atheism (eg socialism, generally speaking).  Not to mention art that considers itself “important” because it scorns Christ: (eg Piss Christ).

Before recent times, “irreverent” language used openly tended to be fairly light, just playing loose with reverence and being, say, “almost blasphemous” – eg strewth (God’s truth), bloody (by Our Lady), Crikey (and other Cri-expressions), Jesus H. Christ, Jeepers Creepers (and other JC-expressions).  There was always some real opposition, of course, but it was not in the public mainstream except in the form of serious discussion (say, by atheist philosophers or communist advocates).  Now, open and confident hostility and contempt are a mainstream phenomenon.

The emotional impact of this on Christians, who tend to love God very dearly, is seldom considered – except perhaps where that impact is intended.

Conclusion

For better or worse, Christianity is pervasive in New Zealand society culture: this is just a fact, whether you like it or not.  Not in control, but pervasive.  This view is even supported by popular hostility to Christianity: Christianity is attacked because it is too significant for its attackers’ liking. 

I reiterate that I am not arguing here that Christianity is good, or even true, only that its pervasive presence makes it extremely significant to New Zealand society.  It is an intrinsic part of the root system of New Zealand culture.

For this reason alone, I suggest that to actively de-Christianise New Zealand by taking steps to remove, repress, misrepresent or marginalise Christianity is not only unjust and cruel to New Zealand’s many Christians, but very dangerous to New Zealand as a whole.