With his wild ginger dreadlocks cascading down his back, Joel McKerrow doesn’t look like a conservative evangelical Christian. But this is the church tribe in which he grew up – what he now calls the “fishbowl” of a “white, middle-class” Christian culture.
As a teenager, he became disillusioned with this “narrow” kind of faith that, he says, doesn’t look far beyond an individual’s relationship with God. “It’s about me getting to heaven and then being a moral person and trying to convert other people,” he says.
“I grew up swimming around a certain fishbowl …” – Joel McKerrow
A well-known performance poet, McKerrow began questioning and wrestling with his inherited faith when he saw that, as a white middle-class heterosexual male, he read the Scriptures with the bias of someone with power and privilege in the world, not like someone from an oppressed people group.
“For me, a big part of the disillusionment came when I began to see the world around me and wonder if this gospel that I’ve been following and believing, what does it have to say to the economic realities of our world, to those who were sitting behind fences on an island, put there as an asylum seeker? I had a whole bunch of experiences that shattered my world,” he says.
“I grew up swimming around a certain fishbowl and, just as a fish has no idea about something called dryness, I had no idea about the reality of the world around me.”
McKerrow was awakened to this fuller perspective after a friend invited him to visit a drop-in centre for street workers.
“I went along and I remember washing dishes with one of the girls afterwards and thinking to myself, ‘you know, this is the first time that I’ve spent any time with the people that Jesus spent all of his time with – and I call myself a Christian, a Jesus follower.’”
McKerrow began to believe that if he were to count himself a true follower of Jesus, he would spend his life working on behalf of the kind of people Jesus spent his time with – “the marginalised and persecuted and those on the outside, the oppressed and facing inequality in our world.”
He has chronicled his journey through the great unravelling of his inherited faith to the weaving together of his “reconstructed” faith in a new book called Woven, published by Acorn Press, to be launched at the Justice Conference in Melbourne on November 15.
“We all do these things in good ways and bad ways and a lot of the book is actually about how to do this journey healthily and well. How do we not throw the baby of faith out with the bathwater of cultural Christianity?”
“I found a tradition that I could belong to.” – Joel McKerrow
McKerrow has seen many of his friends become stuck in the “unravelled” phase of their faith journey.
“They end up critical, cynical or they just throw it all out. Part of my re-weaving or re-framing or reconstructing of my faith was actually a willingness to take a step back in humility and say, ‘I need to learn and grow from those who are outside of my fishbowl.’
“If I’m not doing that, I will stay in the echo chamber of my own bias and I will be all the worse for it and God will be shrunk down; Jesus will be shrunk down to being a white middle-class Jesus.”
McKerrow worried that he was becoming a heretic until he read a book by Celtic writer John O’Donohue, which articulated the beliefs he had been struggling to find language for.
“I found a tradition that I could belong to. I found all these things that discounted me from my little cultural thing were part of a different stream of Christianity … so it was like my Christianity is just getting larger. It doesn’t have to be so narrow.”
As artist-ambassador for TEAR Australia, McKerrow is using his writing to try to move the church past just giving to charity and on to having social justice at its heart.