Shared values with the US? Now there's a leap of faith
Sister Joy is the last sister of the Good Samaritans in Queanbeyan. Photo: Colleen Petch
Whenever an Australian prime minister gives a simpering speech of greeting to a US president he or she always mentions our two nations' ''shared values'' when, really, one wonders if we have any more in common with Americans than with, say, the Whirling Dervishes of Istanbul.
I thought of this earlier this week when the Public Religion Research Institute in the US issued, to coincide with the playing of the Super Bowl, the finding that three in 10 Americans believe God plays a role in determining which teams win sports events.
''In an era where professional sports are driven by dollars and statistics, significant numbers of Americans see a divine hand at play,'' said Robert P. Jones, PRRI's chief executive.
I mention all this not to scoff at it (the way my friend Richard Dawkins would) but only to point out how different Americans are from us. In Australia, so healthily agnostic these days, one wonders if a poll that asked if God plays a part in the result of an AFL final or of a Melbourne Cup would find 2.5 per cent who did believe it.
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As a cultured and sensitive journalist there have over the years been some assignments that have left me what the tabloids call ''ashen-faced''. Floriade has of course been the worst. Cultured and sensitive, and an aesthete, and a botanical patriot, for me being at Floriade was like being imprisoned in an enormous warehouse of cheap, fourth-rate Hawaiian shirts made by a zombie race with which I have nothing in common.
And yet, as my career ambles into its twilight I begin to dare to hope that the assignment I have always dreaded most may never now be inflicted on me. Yes, God seems to have seen to it that I will retire without ever being sent to cover the Tamworth Country Music Festival, that masturbatory jamboree at which Australians who wish they were Americans dress up and sing as Americans and give one another awards for their feats of fake cowboyness and cowgirlery.
Although a masochist has been wittily defined as ''an Englishman who loves to go swimming in the North Sea in winter … and doesn't'' I think it might be well defined as someone who dislikes Australian country music as much as I do but who still listens to it. My first response when the winners of Tamworth's Golden Guitar were announced last week was to use the miracle of YouTube to look at and listen to the singers and the ditties that had won them their guitars.
The horror! Sure enough, as usual, here we have the phenomenon of people singing about Australia and Australian stories, but in affected, put-on Texan voices. So, for example, one of the winning rootin' tootin' cowgirl impersonators has a song, sung in Texan, about playing cricket in the backyard with her brothers. But Texans don't play cricket.
Australian country music performers, can't you see how daft this is? When I come to power (yes, tremble in your fake cowboy boots, for that day is at hand!) I will take back and melt down every Golden Guitar you've won by singing about Australia in this unAustralian way.
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Earlier this week this columnist, a shy atheist, was privileged to interview Sister Joy, 85, the last nun of the Good Samaritan order to serve in Queanbeyan. She is retiring and moving away and suddenly, for the first time in 134 years, the Good Samaritans do not have a presence in Queanbeyan. I respect my elders and was very impressed by her, and it didn't cross my mind to spin-bowl her any smart-arse questions about what seemed from our conversation to be her intelligently thought-through, rock-solid Catholic faith. But I did ask her, just to check, if she had ever had any doubts about anything, perhaps about the existence of God. She said that, yes, of course she'd had doubts since of course your brain equips you to question things.
And then, in a discussion already rather poignant for this columnist (Memo: ABC 666 presenter Louise Maher, the word is pronounced poin-yent with a silent g, not the very noisy g you use in the ''poig-nant'' you broadcast to your station's several dozen impressionable listeners) Sister Joy did a dramatic thing. While talking about the way she believes you can see God's design in everything (for her especially in flowers and in babies) she opened up her 85-year-old hands to illustrate the wonder of how God the designer has even given each of us unique hands in which every finger and every fingerprint is unique to us.
Involuntarily I opened up my own hand and there on the table, side-by-side, we compared Sister Joy's characterful, work-worn hands and my shamefully pink, smooth, feminine ones.
''You've had a cushy job,'' Sister Joy chided me gently, reading the tell-tale evidence of my hands, ''but I've been a jack of all trades.''
It had never occurred to me before to notice how eloquently our hands say, or seem to say, things about us. But then for a journalist perhaps all the hard and ugly work, such as reporting Floriade, leaves its scuffs and scars and wrinkles elsewhere. Perhaps our minds, if you could see them, are as lined and pocked as the surface of the moon.
And with that poignant thought (Louise, it's pronounced, ''poin-yent'') this column takes its leave.