Hard News by Russell Brown


Media Take: The Easter Show

Because its recording took place on the last day of the Easter holiday, we decided that this week's Media Take should focus on Christianity, society and the media. It turned out to be an interesting show.

I asked my Twitter followers who might be good value on the programme and was pointed to Francis Ritchie, the Wesleyan pastor who works with TEAR Fund and recently helped launch NewsLeads, an initiative to offer pastoral attention to media workers and, eventually, provide to journalists a service similar to what the Science Media Centre does on science stories.

Others suggested the Rev. Hirini Kaa, who has an engaging Twitter presence and serves as executive director of the Maori child advocacy organisation Ririki (he has also acted as a consultant on Ngati Porou's digital engagement strategy).

Our researcher came up with Clay Nelson, who attracted attention as the principal author of the provocative billboards posted by St Matthew's in the City and is now minister at the Auckland Unitarian Church.

And we also invited a couple who have attracted more more media attention than all the above put together: Bishop Brian and Hannah Tamaki, the founders of Destiny Church. My colleagues Toi and Tipare believed the Tamakis' work in rescuing people mired in lives of substance abuse and violence didn't get enough credit. It would be fair to say the Tamakis came out of their comfort zone in appearing on the show and I'm grateful for that.

The first part of the show, with Francis and Hirini includes Francis talking about his goals for NewsLeads and an interesting discussion about Maori spirituality in what, according to Census 2013, is an increasingly non-religious nation (fewer than half of New Zealanders now profess Christian belief and 42% declare no religious affiliation at all). I'd declared my atheism at the top of the show, but I'm quite comfortable with the language of Maori spirituality as a poetic and meaningful way of relating to the world. 

Then it was time for the Tamakis, who were coming off Easter Sunday's presentations of The Final Power, a grand theatre show about family and redemption, which looked like a good story.

There wasn't the time and it wasn't the place to conduct an inquisition, and I didn't ask about money, or about the church's high-profile defections in recent years. But I did want to know whether Brian stood by some of the things he has said in public over time.

His comments on homosexuality are notorious (gays are "perverts" who are "warping" the country, etc), but he and Hannah are very publicly friends with Jevan Goulter, an out gay man who was there in support for the recording. They had attended a fundraiser for Georgina Beyer. Might Brian acknowledge his views had evolved over the years?

I also wanted to know about Vipers of Religion, an awful sermon that featured as an MP3 on his website for years. I characterised it in a blog post thus:

He describes Islam as “that devilish thing” and the construction of a Buddhist temple in Botany Downs as “opening a door from Hell”, and then goes on to link both with “immigrants … who won’t change their demon religions” and are “pouring in” to New Zealand as a result of a “demon” looking around the world for openings where God has been pushed out. They are, he claims, bringing with them the economic and social degradation that their wicked faiths have wrought on their countries of origin.

These are terrible, dangerous things for him to be telling his vulnerable flock about their neighbours.

What happened was quite strange. The questions first went unanswered and then the speech I was pressing him on was defended as the inevitable word of God. It seemed as if neither of them was capable of connecting these terrible words with real-life actions, or that the Bishop's pride would never allow for any revision. Some of the comments on immigrants at the end of the show ran pretty close to the line.

"I just wanted Brian to say he was wrong," I explained to Hannah as the lights went down.

They both laughed.

"Well he's never going to say that!"

She told me that Destiny's notorious Enough is Enough march was necessary "because what they really wanted was marriage," which was probably true. And "they" got it in the end, without any obvious retribution from God.

"And also," she said. "They wanted to make it legal for an eight year-old girl to have sex with an adult. That was in the same law."

I need hardly tell you it wasn't.

I had genuinely expected that Brian Tamaki's rhetoric might have shifted in line with his and his wife's personal lives – after all, they talk, if a little defensively, about their gay friends and family. But it hasn't. And it's not really rhetoric. In contrast to the others on the programme, they didn't seem able to actually discuss faith. I wonder if this is the true peril of living cloistered in a "City of God": you can no longer talk to anyone outside. And yet, for all that they tithe and tax and preen, the Tamakis do lift up some people who seem beyond other help.

I'm still grateful they came on the programme, and I am taking in good part Hannah's subsequent trash-talking of me on Twitter. That's okay, it was funny rather than mean, and I don't need anyone else to defend me, or especially to be rude.

Like many atheists, I am actually quite interested in religion (famously, atheists and agnostics did better in Pew Religion's quiz 2010 quiz than people of any faith) and I really enjoyed doing this show. It was great to meet Hirini and Clay in person, and I've asked Francis to think about what he could write for a Public Address audience.

I'm also glad to have been able to put questions to the Tamakis, even if the answers were not very satisfactory. For all the witless, hateful speech over the years, I don't feel the contempt for them that I do for, say, Bob McCoskrie of Family First. I don't hate them. Indeed, at times this week I felt a little sorry for them as the words whirled around them.

You can watch last night's episode of Media Take on-demand here.

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