Barney Zwartz is senior fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity, a freelance journalist and a Christian. His life has been rich and diverse, as he explains to Julie Houghton.
What was your initial training that led to this varied professional life?
I did a diploma in journalism in Wellington, New Zealand in 1973. I disdained the shorthand and touch-typing lessons as secretarial, but within months of starting in newspapers I realised they were the most valuable skills I gained.
I did a Bachelor of Theology at the Presbyterian Theological College in Melbourne, every moment of which I loved, even though we had to do Hebrew and Greek as extras to major in Old and New Testaments, because they were not part of the course.
I started a PhD in philosophy at Melbourne University, which I had to let lapse. But I am confident that I am the only ‘Doctor of Phiosology’, gained through ‘life experience’ and $350 paid to a ‘university’ in Liberia—this was research for a story I was writing for The Age.
What was your career trajectory leading up to your roles on The Age staff as religion editor and classical music writer?
I held various jobs: chief sub-editor, letters editor, opinion editor. The editor was surprised when I applied to cover religion, which is usually assigned to a junior, but it was the best job I ever had. I did it for 12 years until I left in December 2013 after 34 years. I started writing about music because it is my passion and because they let me—I was in the right place at the right time. No doubt others could do it as well or better, so I felt hugely privileged, and interviewed some great musicians. Currently, I am the deputy reviewer for opera.
What is your background in religion and music?
I had no religious background at all—both parents were utterly uninterested. I can only say that like every believer, I was ‘saved by grace’. However in terms of music, I owe my parents a huge debt: my father was a conductor and my mother was a pianist. They were not evangelical about music, but all their children love it.
What were the delights and the challenges of writing about religion
for The Age?
Knowing it was a neglected but hugely important field made it both rewarding and challenging. It was an area of great richness. I enjoyed writing about positive aspects and religion’s contribution, but of course the negative side, with issues such as clergy sexual abuse, was also important. I was grateful for the chance to advocate for religion in the public domain in opinion articles and in my blog, to lift awareness about religious persecution around the world.
Tell me about your current role with the Centre for Public Christianity (CPX).
The CPX does terrific work in presenting a genuine Christianity, acknowledging our failures but reminding people of our successes and contributions. A key aim is to advocate for public Christianity in the face of rising secular militancy that says religion is always only a private matter and should not affect politics or policy. That is not only undemocratic but also unwise given the still-huge role of religion (think schools, university, welfare, aged care, values, volunteers and much more; not least the work of The Salvation Army). Many secularists really believe they are neutral but see all Christians as biased, and who should be silenced—that’s one of the secularists’ own doctrines of faith.
As you didn’t grow up as a Christian, what is your faith background?
As an adult, I was baptised and married by John Coleman, an inspiring minister at Camberwell Baptist Church. I then did my Bachelor of Theology with the Presbyterians. I still do some work for Presbyterians and Anglicans. I am not motivated by denomination so much as by individual churches.
Is there a crossover between your personal faith and your work?
As any Christian should, I want to do my microscopic bit to advance the Kingdom of God. As a journalist for a secular newspaper, I had to be as studiedly neutral as possible, certainly in news stories, and had to do a lot of explaining and backgrounding. I have the luxury of more freedom now, but I still have to find places to publish my work—sometimes secular (The Age, the ABC’s Religion and Ethics website), sometimes Christian (Eternity newspaper, or The Melbourne Anglican), and each has its own particular requirements. I also help advise the Anglican Primate of Australia, Melbourne Archbishop Philip Freier, on media issues.