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Peril in the Public Square: TGCA Talks to Bible Society CEO Greg Clarke about The Coopers Affair

Greg Clarke is the CEO of the Bible Society Australia, which produced the ‘Keeping It Light’ video on same-sex marriage. The video produced a backlash on social media from same-sex marriage supporters, targeting Coopers Brewery (whose product featured in the video). 
Akos Balogh caught up with Greg to chat about the backlash, and Christian involvement in the public square. 

Akos Balogh (AB): What’s the relationship between Coopers Brewery and the Bible Society?

Greg Clarke (GC): For many years the Coopers foundation has supported a whole range of causes, including Christian causes, and they have given us several grants to fund Bibles for the Defence Force Ministries through the chaplains.

(Turning now to last week’s events...)

AB: What made you do the ‘Keeping It Light’ video on Same-sex Marriage?

GC: The [Keeping It Light] videos were part of an integrated campaign we had to promote the Bible Society in our Bicentenary Year. And since Coopers had given us this gift of the brand of cans with the Bible Society logo on them, we wanted to make the most of the impact of those cans being out there.

So we came up with a series of videos trying to encourage Australians to tackle difficult and troubling conversations, but maintaining a light and friendly tone. And it just so happened that the first one was on same-sex marriage.

The connection with our brand image and brand line, which is ‘live light’, as in ‘light’ in terms of respectful, and over a ‘light’ beer, seemed like a good connection between the two.

AB: What were you hoping the response would be to your ‘Keeping it Light’ video?

GC: Because we were tackling difficult topics, we knew there was likely to be a whole range of responses, and our challenge to everyone was to have a civil discussion about these issues.

And one of the things we’ve discovered is just how difficult this is in the social media age.

The surprise for us was the assault on Coopers, which upset us, and we never would have wanted to take place. 

Coopers Bsa Product Photo2

We knew there was likely to be a whole range of responses, and our challenge to everyone was to have a civil discussion about these issues … we’ve discovered how difficult this is in the social media age.

Greg Clarke

AB: What went through your mind as you saw the backlash unfold?

GC: We certainly felt a lot for Coopers, and were horrified at the way they were being treated, which we continue to feel is very unfair.

We were hopeful that the debate would balance out as time went on. And I think it’s true to say that to some extent that’s happened, where the topic of ‘keeping it light on difficult conversations’ itself became a topic. It’s been encouraging to see discussion on civil discourse on the pages of many of our newspapers, and websites.

But I think we’ve got a particular problem achieving civil discourse on social media. This problem is directly related to the style of communication that it is. It’s interesting to me that the ABC has launched a series on television, on the topic of ‘cyber bullying’, at the same time as this backlash is taking place, indicating that we as a society have a big challenge to work out the acceptable ethos of social media.

The Bible Society has always been interested in public discussion, in what happens when you take the teachings of the Bible into the public space, and to think of the Bible not just as a Church document but as a public document, and see if it can in fact season conversation with salt, and shed light, and do all those things we believe the gospel can do.

AB: How did you feel about the Coopers response to the backlash?

GC: We completely respected Coopers decision to act as they did, and we still do. We are sad that the flow of events put them into a difficult situation.

AB: Why did you take the video down?

GC: Coopers asked us to remove the video, and we respected their request.

AB: What do you mean when you say the Bible Society doesn’t have a position on Same-Sex Marriage?

GC: The Bible Society is an almost-unique organisation, in that it works across churches of pretty much every denomination, and always has for over 200 years. It was originally established to make the Bible available ‘without note or comment’, which is the phrase that was leading the way for Bible Societies.

This meant that the Bible Society could enter any political situation, any church scenario, without fear or favour, and be the providers of the Bible, and the providers of platforms for the discussion of the Bible.

So the reason the Bible Society doesn’t hold a view on same-sex marriage is the same reason we don’t hold a view on the nature of the Lord’s supper, or refugees, or any other issue that we know the Bible speaks about. We provide the Bible for others to build the conversation around.

And it’s been that way since 1804. This is not a new development for the Bible Society – this is what we’ve always done – and I would say it’s one of the reasons we’ve been able to survive so long.

AB: Will the rest of the Keeping It Light video series be released?

GC: We’re certainly working on more material, but what shape it will take remains to be seen.

AB: How should Christians respond to the backlash?

GC: Well first, I want to say that I’m very grateful to our many faithful donors and supporters who have encouraged us during this period, have stuck by us, and have been very generous to us. That’s been extremely encouraging!

But in terms of engaging as Christians in public life in the 21st century, the first place to go to is the Bible itself. We tried to do this in the video, and we’re still trying to be led by the Scriptures in the way we go about things. James 1:19 was the key text that we promoted in that video: ‘everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.’ I think that’s not a bad place to start for Christians.

In terms of engaging as Christians in public life in the 21st century, the first place to go to is the Bible itself. We tried to do this in the video, and we’re still trying to be led by the Scriptures in the way we go about things.

Greg Clarke

I certainly think Christians need to be willing to stand on their convictions, from whatever platform they are on, and be heard fairly in the public square.

But I would also say that Christians have a long way to go in understanding the positions of others, and be able to empathise with where they are coming from. And this whole experience has helped me see how much more we need to be quick to listen and slow to speak – even with people who are outside of the faith.

The other thing I’d say is that I’ve been stunned by the way Christians are willing to attack each other in both public and private. Although we know that the Scriptures are useful for rebuke and correction, some of the attacking didn’t seem to be as constructive as that! So perhaps we need to look at ourselves on that matter as well. Jesus teaching about the log in our own eye, and the speck in others, keeps coming to mind.

We mustn’t be led by fear and anger. We must continue to be led by love and the grace of the gospel.

AB: Is there anything more Christians could or should do to engage Same-Sex Marriage in the public square?

GC: We as the Bible Society have had our turn at entering that space, and so I’ll be keen to see what others can come up with.

AB: Are you hopeful our society will be able to engage in civil debate – particularly over social media?

GC: I’m usually very optimistic. And I’m not one for withdrawing from public Christianity. However, I think now is a really good time to reflect carefully on where best to put our efforts. As Christians, we must not assume that every new technology is a great resource for us in particular. Rather, we must be careful, reflective and wise about what kinds of discourses are going to best showcase the beauty, truth and goodness of Christianity.

AB: Greg, thanks very much for your time. We realise it’s been a particularly challenging week for the Bible Society. We pray the Bible Society would continue with its work for many years yet! 

Akos Balogh is the Executive Director of the The Gospel Coalition Australia.You can reach him on twitter via @akosbaloghcom, or at his blog akosbalogh.com

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