Listen: Assumpta Venkatachalam chats about her time on the SBS show ‘Christians Like Us’.
It may have stirred up a hornet’s nest of heated debate – but what the SBS TV show Christians Like Us failed to do, is explore what it means to follow Christ, says housemate Assumpta Venkatachalam.
Assumpta, a Sydney-based evangelical Christian, was one of 10 believers from radically diverse backgrounds who participated in the two-part show. The housemates lived together for a week in a house in Bella Vista, and were asked to discuss the biggest hot-button issues affecting the church, with cameras capturing all their interactions. Assumpta spoke to Katrina Roe about her experience.
Assumpta’s Experience on Christians Like Us
Katrina: Tell us about your story – how did you become a Christian?
Assumpta: I come from a Hindu Brahman family and when I was 16 my dad suddenly dropped dead of a heart attack and it kind of made me wonder, ‘What’s the meaning of life?’, and that I needed to find the truth, no matter where it led me.
And after a long, long search investigating all kinds of spiritualities and religions, it led me to Jesus.
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K: This show presents Christianity as a religion in crisis – rocked by child sexual abuse, gay marriage, gender issues. After the process of filming, did you feel more divided, or more together?
A: We all banded ourselves under the banner of Christian but we have some very very different views on even something as fundamental as the Bible.
For me, I found it really interesting that SBS focussed on all of these issues when in fact I actually don’t think that’s what Christianity is all about. I mean that kind of comes out of Christianity, things like abortion and women, and I’m absolutely grieved by the fact that there’s abuse in the church. That’s awful. But one of the questions we didn’t answer on the show is, what does Jesus mean to you? What is a Christian to you? Because I think that every housemate would have answered differently.
K: That was the first thing I thought when I saw it. They just focussed on the most divisive issues. That is the premise of the show. Do you think the show represents what it means to be a modern Australian Christian?
I think it represents what various modern Christians believe about these divisive issues. I don’t actually think it represents what it means to be a modern Australian Christian.
Because for me, I’ll be honest with you, I don’t spend my days talking about abortion, homosexuality, women priests. I hear on the news about abuse in the church and that absolutely guts me but for me, my day to day faith is completely different to that very intense one week in the house where we spoke about all those issues in one go. To me, that’s not the definition of Christianity. To me the definition of Christianity, is Christ. I mean, it’s in the name.
K: It shows you something of how the outside world perceives Christianity. These are the ideas that they want to focus on. Do you feel in some sense you’ve at least gotten an idea of how others view the Christian faith from being part of this?
A: I thought it was really interesting, after the show finished, I heard some comments from people who wouldn’t call themselves Christian. And one of the things somebody said to me which I thought was very telling, is that they said to me, ‘You Christians seem to focus on the detail, things that I wouldn’t consider important’.
So to that person, things like ‘whether the bibles true or not, that’s just a side-detail’. That doesn’t really matter to outsiders. What does matter [to them] is attitudes to LGBTIQ, women priests, [and so on]. So it was very telling to me what the average Australian who wouldn’t call themselves a Christian, finds absolutely fundamental in Christianity.
K: Were you able to discuss those hot-button issues in a loving way? Did you feel like your represented at least that aspect of the faith – that you could be loving and accepting of each other?
A: Sure. Let’s face it, we’re going into a house talking about very, very personal issues that are fundamental to who we are as people. For example Chris, who calls himself a gay Christian, for him, his experience with the church and how they treated LGBTIQ people, really formed his opinion on someone like me. He came into the house to actually speak to people like me, and to challenge people like me. And I came into the house to challenge him – about what an evangelical Christian looks like, and that they may not necessarily look like what he thinks they look like, for example.
And similar to Tiffany and the issue of female leadership, and I would hope Steve Smith, on how somebody like me is deeply grieved by child sex abuse in the church and it’s not something that I would just dismiss and go, ‘Yeah, yeah, whatever the church does is fine and I’ve got to protect the church’.
“About half way through, we actually found ourselves caring about each other, and seeing through that one-dimensional label… loving one another, and respecting one another.”
So the discussion was heated and at times people probably felt attacked, because the issue was so personal to them. But you know what was really funny? About half way through, we actually found ourselves caring about each other and seeing through that one-dimensional label, that tagline that each of us had come on the show for – the ‘gay Christian’, ‘female priest’, the ‘conservative evangelical’, the ‘Catholic’.
We kind of started seeing through all of that, and going, ‘You know what, there’s a human being behind it’, and we started actually caring for and loving one another, and respecting one another. I think we always tried to respect one another, but I think once we started seeing through that one-dimensional tag, it became about love and about respect and about really trying to understand the other person.
K: Are you glad you went on the show?
A: I underestimated the impact that the show would have on me. And I think everybody else did too. I went and slept for about a week after the show. It was high-stress, high-cortisol. And in that respect, it was a high cost to me physically and mentally.
I’m glad I went on the show because how often do ‘lay-people’ like me, evangelical Christians, get to really say what we think over a week, over two hours on a TV show in the secular media? Usually we get on [ABC TV show] Q&A and we get kind of smashed and little bits of soundbites get taken out of what we say.
I thought, I’m coming on, I’m an everyday evangelical Christian, and I think I represented that, for better or worse.
K: Do you think you’ll stay in touch with any of the other cast members?
A: We already do. I know that Tiff and Carol and Hannah and Chris and some of the others have actually caught up and they spent Christmas together which was really nice, because they’re based in Queensland. And similarly, [I’ve caught up with] Steve Chong, Daniel, Marty, and I’ve spoken to Hannah as well. Let’s face it, there are some serious divisions in terms of what we think about some of these key issues, which means that some of us are more naturally inclined towards other people in the house and not so much with others. So we keep in touch with the people that we’re naturally inclined towards. But we still have a lot of love and at least respect for everybody else.
K: The program really emphasises, particularly in how they’re marketing it, the ‘decline’ in Christianity in Australia. Did you guys talk about, or get any sense of what it would take to revive the church in Australia?
A: Yeah, we had a big talk about that and again we were kind of divided on what we actually think about whether there actually is a crisis of Christianity in Australia. So one side of the argument was that there’s not money coming in, there’s not as many people and so Christianity is in crisis.
My opinion is, there’s a lot of cultural, nominal Christians out there, and what’s happening now, is that it’s not cool to be a Christian. It’s not acceptable to be a Christian. And so the ‘wheat’ is being sorted from the ‘chaff’.
And the true Christians are coming out that were always there, and if somebody chooses to become a Christian now, it’s not because it’s socially acceptable, it’s because they really want to do it, and they really believe that Jesus is Lord.
So I think the ‘quality’ of Christians is better, and to me, that doesn’t meant that Christianity is in crisis, it means the Christianity is thriving with genuine believers.
Christians Like Us airs on SBS at 8:30pm on Wednesday, April 3 and April 10, and is also available for streaming on SBS On Demand.