Fairness in Religion in Schools + Sex and Sin = Bold and The Beautiful.

This post has been sparked by my distantly observing the SRE in schools ‘debate’, and the knee-jerk media response to a PR spun piece of research from the parent-run Victorian lobby group called Fairness in Religion in Schools (FIRIS). I have to show my vested interest from a few perspectives.

1) I’ve worked in the media so know how using news agenda elements can grab the attention of a time-poor journalist struggling to meet the internet’s voracious demands for fresh news, being paid crap cents per word, with the media corporation’s advertising budgets shrinking so he or she is having to write much, much more for much, much less.

2) I’ve run a Public Relations agency for over 15 years and also know how you can dress up a fast survey to make it look like ‘serious’ research to grab the attention of a time-poor journalist struggling to meet the internet’s voracious demands for fresh news, being paid crap cents etc. (See point one)

3) I’m a newish Christian too, so, combined with my long experience of the two points above, I have a fascination with the messaging and stereotypes that are thrust around and can cause instant misunderstanding. Those stereotypes, after all, were the ones that kept me away from church and Jesus for many years.

First, let’s tackle the name of the Lobby group. Fairness In Religion In Schools. Excellent media hook name. Short and snappy. Implies their vision is to treat religion fairly in schools. Until you have a look at their Facebook and website pages and realise their aim is to “formally cease the practice of volunteer-run special religious instruction (SRI) during school hours”. Fairness In Religion? For whom?

Clever though, because by the time any journalist has cottoned on that the name doesn’t necessarily reflect its aim, he or she has been thorughly seduced by the excellent use of tabloid, Today Tonight style language. Fast paced. Uses all the elements found on a news agenda: timeliness, consequence, conflict etc…oh yes, gimme more of that says the news editor. Conflict!

As Natasha Moore explores in her excellent piece on ABC’s The Drum, ‘a sincere presentation of different worldviews and ethical systems within school is a means of enrichment rather than a threat to the status quo’. But how tame does that sound in comparison to book banning, fear of child evangelising, and media savvy sound bites such as Greens MP John Kaye commenting, ‘If parents knew that Scripture was much more than quaint stories about men gadding about in togas and Roman sandals, enrollments would plummet’?

The ‘debate’ was like Christianity meets Day of Our Lives and Bold and The Beautiful. I half expected Ron Moss to make an appearance. Especially when hot sex was thrown into the mix. The headlines sizzled: Calls for end to ‘dangerous’ messages in scripture classes yelled The Sydney Morning Herald. TheBoldAndTheBeautiful_marquee_02_900x506

FIRIS and John Kaye had an issue with a book by Dr Patricia Weerakoon, a sexual health expert and honorary senior lecturer at Sydney University’s Westmead Clinical School. Specifically with how Dr. Weerakoon portrays sex to young people in her ‘Teen Sex By The Book‘.

Dr. Weerakoon is Christian. The book specifically looks at the calling of Christian faith, and how that faith fits with today’s sexually permissive society. It is designed to help teenagers who are Christians, or who are thinking of becoming Christians, navigate a choice that is today viewed as highly counter-cultural. Imagine choosing a religion that proposes saving sex for marriage. A religion that suggests seeking healthy, pleasurable sex within an intimate, satisfying relationship that lasts a lifetime. Imagine being a teenager seeking to follow that Christian path in today’s society. I’d be looking for a guidebook too.

Oddly, Weerakoon’s book is not part of the authorised SRE curriculum. So why did FIRIS and Kaye start banging on about it? From the PR perspective, let me remind you of what makes news. The elements that make up the news agenda are timeliness, consequence, conflict……ooh, did someone just say conflict?

It’s a shame the SMH journalist who wrote the original story didn’t do some fact checking. Blame tight deadlines, crap cents per word etc. If the news shoe fits the agenda, press publish. I’m not saying the FIRIS PR and Publicity manager specifically skewed the story angle to ramp up the news element of conflict in the hope of getting media coverage…..I’m just saying that conflict is an element of the news agenda that almost always gets media coverage.

Hot, steamy, submissive sex

Weerakoon was in the news back in February when she called for Christians to boycott the 50 Shades film, as it normalises “unconventional sexual behaviour”. 50 Shades includes bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism. I find it ironic that FIRIS wanted to ban her book because they see it as pushing unconventional, sexual behaviour too.

A FIRIS concern was how Teen Sex By The Book refers to the Christian concept of headship: that man is the head of woman, and women are to voluntarily submit no matter what. Am I the only one hearing echoes of Anastasia Steel and Christian Gray? To connect the dots, in case anyone misses the point, why on earth would Weerakoon tell people to boycott the film 50 Shades due to its ‘normalising’ submission if she was advocating women voluntarily submit to a notion of Christian headship that FIRIS perceives as having dark undertones?

I’ve written about domestic violence and headship before. Headship does NOT mean submitting to being verbally, mentally and physically abused by your husband. Back to the Bible. Love your wife as Jesus loved the church. Jesus did not wander around in a sleeveless shirt, downing Stella Artois, battering his church. Apologies if you are a gentle, passive soul who enjoys sleeveless shirts and Stella. I’m just messing with a few stereotypes here.

I dislike bleating that Christianity is misunderstood, but JC on roller-skates, it is! Like sin. The secular, simplistic view is that Christianity teaches sin to makes us all feel bad about ourselves. I appreciate where it comes from, given I had to really dig into what sin meant before I could get over my own Christian hangover, but it is so off-track it may as well be on Mars.

However, looking at sin narrowly is handy if you want to fire up the simplistic news agenda around conflict. Why let truth get in the way of a good news story?

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