Still asking the question

Retired radio announcer Ewing Stevens, of Alexandra. Photo by Pam Jones.
Retired radio announcer Ewing Stevens, of Alexandra. Photo by Pam Jones.
Ewing Stevens with his wife Annette and sons Adam (left) and Jason. Photos supplied.
Ewing Stevens with his wife Annette and sons Adam (left) and Jason. Photos supplied.
The Rev Ewing Stevens engages with young people at the Wakari Presbyterian Church in the 1960s.
The Rev Ewing Stevens engages with young people at the Wakari Presbyterian Church in the 1960s.
The Rev Ewing Stevens engages with young people at the Wakari Presbyterian Church in the 1960s.
The Rev Ewing Stevens engages with young people at the Wakari Presbyterian Church in the 1960s.
Bikers provide rides at the church fair in the 1960s.
Bikers provide rides at the church fair in the 1960s.

Broadcaster Ewing Stevens has hung up his microphone after decades of communicating with a nationwide congregation. Pam Jones talks to the talkback host about night-time confidences and a church career that gave rise to worldwide attention, death threats and bike rides with a difference.

The grapes at Anthony James Vineyard exist like others of a Central Otago inclination, tended with toil and respect against a resolute backdrop.

Beyond, the scrubby slopes of the Old Woman Range are steadfast as pinot noir ripens on the valley floor, sweet purple clusters swelling for an autumn harvest.

Outdoors, staff are contemplating the coming year's crop, planning already for the grapes' departure to Matua Winery, where the Anthony James grapes will become part of a Central Otago Matua pinot noir.

Inside, the guardian of Anthony James is also considering the future, immersed still in a lifetime of existential questions and digesting a recent quantum shift.

Ewing Stevens formally signed off from Radio Live's overnight talkback show on October 29, having been away for several months before that following an operation for bowel cancer.

It was a premature retirement from a decades-long career listening to the arguments, ideas and personal stories of a nationwide audience, but Mr Stevens says the phrase "talkback'' is almost a misnomer when it comes to what the host should really be doing.

Although New Zealanders have come to love his trademark warmth, wisdom and sage advice, the most important thing a talkback host can do is listen, Mr Stevens says.

"Listening is the big thing. One of the keys to being a talkback host is to listen and know what people are talking about and to let them speak and not misunderstand them. My advice to people would always be to listen first. Listen carefully before you speak.''

In the wee, small hours hosting Radio Live (and before that hosting Radio Pacific's overnight talkback show), Mr Stevens was privileged to hear the stories of callers who sometimes seemed to forget they were being broadcast to a nationwide audience.

"It was just so personal. At night-time, I think people would forget themselves and they would talk about the most personal things with me. They would just keep talking and we'd have conversations where I think they forgot they were on national radio and thought of it as a private conversation between the two of us.''

A lot of those conversations have taken place from Mr Stevens' Central Otago vineyard, where a home office studio was set up at his Alexandra property.

He and his wife Annette bought the vineyard nine years ago, remaining based at their home on Waiheke Island and spending holidays at Anthony James, where Mr Stevens would still host his radio show.

They moved permanently to Alexandra two years ago, viewing it as a return to their roots; Mr Stevens was Southland-raised but spent seven years in Central Otago at the Waipiata Sanatorium in his 20s, and Annette was from Dunedin.

It was Dunedin that first heard Mr Stevens' mellow tones, when he started hosting the Presbyterian Hour on 4XD in 1956; at the time it was common for ministers to host radio sessions, and Mr Stevens was a Presbyterian minister in Wakari, Dunedin.

Mr Stevens played hymns, and talked about "goodness knows what'', and later introduced a "teenage viewpoint'' slot in the hour, in keeping with the trail-blazing work he was already doing with youth through the church.

He launched a Sunday evening youth club while minister at the Wakari church, responding to requests from young people for more activities and, importantly, activities to which they could invite non-church-going friends.

Dancing was a key thing the young people wanted, so Mr Stevens built it into the youth club programme.

But in 1960s Dunedin it was unheard of for the church to be organising dances, and news of the first dance made headlines, through a newspaper article by a club member who was also a cub reporter with The Evening Star.

It wasn't the "quiet and gentle'' introduction to the community Mr Stevens had been wanting, but his fears about a public fallout evaporated when a senior elder in the church, Archie McEachran, praised the move and said "thank God someone has had the courage to do something about it''.

The dances became a Sunday-night institution, and meant people from all walks of life, who may not otherwise have had an involvement with the Church, developed a connection with the Wakari church: young people could only attend the dance by first going to the Sunday evening church service and picking up the paper ticket that gained them entry to the dance.

Everyone welcome  

All were welcome, including those from the "wrong side of the street''.

Bikies, gang members and V8 boys were among the congregation and attended the youth club church services and dances with gusto.

At the parish fair to raise money for the church, the bikers even provided motorcycle rides for children.

"It would be unheard of now, of course, but at the time it was just great and everyone got on and had a great time. All the kids of Wakari used to come to the youth club. We didn't even ask about denomination, it just disappeared.''

By the time attendance at the Sunday evening church services was reaching several hundred, Mr Stevens also brought in a talkback-style question and answer panel discussion during the service.

"The evening service had to change dramatically. It was very difficult to have some two to three hundred teenagers, who had little church background, listening to a sermon.

"I remember preaching one Sunday night on the subject of the Holy Spirit. The elements of the sermon were lost on my congregation and at the conclusion of the sermon a loud voice from the back of the church echoed through the silence: 'What about the working man?'

"Through the laughter that followed I realised that the technique of preaching sermons did not meet the needs of this congregation. I decided to change the format of the evening services. We included plays produced by youth club members themselves, interviews with people who had a message to give that was of social concern and of religious significance. Congregational participation was encouraged with the provision of a long lead on a microphone which allowed members of the congregation to ask questions and make statements.''

Mr Stevens still receives correspondence and visits from some of those people, and counts that as some of the most rewarding acknowledgements of his work he has received.

National and industry recognition came too: he won the New Zealand Radio Awards supreme award for services to broadcasting in 2012, and the following year was nominated for New Zealander of the Year.

Looking back on that first youth work, it formed almost a prelude to Mr Stevens' next period in the headlines.

There was more trailblazing stuff to come, and the next chapter would bring international attention.

Mr Stevens was used to his youth club members asking him questions about Jesus - and asked the same questions himself - but there was one member of a discussion sub-group of university students who had a particular effect.

"They were all asking me questions about who Jesus was and I started to give some theological answers, but there was one young man who looked at me and said, 'No. Who do you think he was?'.''

It was invitation enough for Mr Stevens to spend most of a subsequent holiday dictating a paper for the group in answer to the question. He had the paper "cyclostyled'' and circulated it to the university group.

One of the leaders of the group, Michael Dunlop, worked for a Dunedin publisher and later suggested the material might be suitable for a small book.

Mr Stevens agreed and then didn't give it another moment's thought, until the book was actually published, under the title of Jesus, and the criticism started to pour in.

Always one to question and challenge the tenets of the Christian faith, Mr Stevens had included various theories in his paper, including one that suggested Jesus was not the son of Joseph, but instead the illegitimate offspring of a Roman soldier.

Other writings questioned the validity of the various miracle accounts in the New Testament, reminded the Bible was comprised of various writings done after Jesus' death and it was not possible to know what was actually true, and said that Christian principles that were accepted unquestioningly 2000 years ago - such as the existence of heaven and hell - could not be accepted in a scientific modern age without destroying or endangering one's integrity.

It was 1973, and the furore was instant. "It hit New Zealand like a thunderbolt,'' Mr Stevens said. 

Jesus sold 5000 copies in a week. Whitcoulls wouldn't stock it, because of the owner's more conservative Christian views, but every other bookstore did.

Mr Stevens was flown to Wellington for an interview on the Gallery television programme with the editor of the Catholic Tablet, John Kennedy ("We had a big argument about the Virgin Mary. But later we became very good friends.'').

The Truth ran a headline along the lines of "Minister believes Jesus to be the illegitimate son of Roman soldier''.

Mr Stevens' own congregation supported his right to write the paper, but some of the national Presbyterian elders wanted him tried for heresy, and Mr Stevens was subject to three five-hour interviews with church elders, who reluctantly concluded he "had taught nothing that was new'' in his paper, but said he should have shown it to church elders before it was published (Mr Stevens says he knows if he had done that, they wouldn't have allowed the book's publication).

He avoided a heresy trial, unlike his close friend Prof (now Sir) Lloyd Geering.

Prof Geering had been tried and exonerated in 1967 for his own teachings about the resurrection.

Many suggested Mr Stevens was unfit to be a minister within the Church. One said it was better that he be dead than "blaspheme the name of the Lord''. Another accused him of teaching young people false doctrine. One memorable caller offered "to have my feet set in concrete and to be cast into Otago Harbour''.

However, many others thanked him for "spring cleaning religion'' and said the book had enabled them to speak out for the first time about personal beliefs they held.

Mr Stevens later said he possibly gave too much weight in the paper to the theory of Jesus' father being a Roman soldier, and did not make it clear enough that he himself believed Jesus was indeed the son of Joseph.

But he still defends his right to ask questions and raise alternative theories, having been given leave to do so by the very people who trained him to be a minister.

After Jesus was published, calls from the Presbyterian Church dried up somewhat, and he instead accepted an invitation to lead the Methodist Church in South Dunedin. More youth work followed, but also the death of his first wife, Mary.

Mr Stevens found love again and married Annette, then accepted an invitation to become the editor of the Methodist Church's national newspaper, The New Citizen, in Auckland.

A period as a social worker followed, then his radio career with Radio Pacific began, in 1979.

Decades later and now living in Central Otago, he reflects on his early beginnings and his return to a place with sentimental ties.

Mr Stevens spent five years with tuberculosis in the Waipiata Sanatorium, in the Maniototo, in his 20s (his mother died of the disease in another hospital while he was there, and Mr Stevens later trained as a Tb nurse, working for another two years at the sanatorium after his recovery).

He said he would never forget the experience of living for so many years in the clear air of Central Otago.

(The memory of helping friends run a radio service for those at the sanatorium remains vivid, too. It turned out the broadcasts were also being heard elsewhere in the Maniototo, and the Government shut the station down, banning any radio that wasn't government-owned, and viewing it as a pirate radio station).

It was Mr Stevens' recovery from tuberculosis that made him move into the Church, wanting to "give something back out of what I had been given''. But it also sparked more questions.

Mr Stevens, who had been training as a pharmacist before he contracted tuberculosis, was cured by the arrival of the drug streptomycin, although he also had to wonder if his prayers over American spiritual "Pisgah'' papers he had been given had helped.

"My perplexity from a Christian point of view was what had healed us both? [Another friend also recovered]. Was it due to the streptomycin injections or to the Pisgah papers we slept on and in faith had asked for healing. From my point of view now, I am sure that the streptomycin did the job because it healed those who were Christian and those who were non-Christian, or any faith, in a similar fashion. However, there is still this niggling feeling that the laying on of the papers had helped the healing process; certainly, I believed so at the time.''

Such questions still fill the mind of Mr Stevens, who describes himself as a Christian agnostic: being a Christian, but unsure whether all Christian teachings are true.

He thinks religion is an accident of birth - "if I was born in India I'd likely be Hindu or Muslim, if I was born in Northern Ireland I'd be Catholic'' - doubts there is a heaven, thinks talk of angels is conjecture and doesn't believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

"When Jesus died on the cross he really died, and his resurrection is to be understood in terms of his continuing presence issuing in loving actions, strengthening, encouraging and inspiring every future generation.''

Mr Stevens wrote in his most recent book (he has published 22, many through Radio Pacific) two years ago that "at my age trying to wrestle with the concept of God is too difficult for me.

With the limited time I have left, it is enough for me to continue wrestling with the human part of the equation!''.

Now aged 89 and with an uncertain prognosis, he says he is not wrestling any differently with such questions, but still doesn't know who God is.

The question still confounds him.

But he still finds comfort in going to church, thinks that Jesus' teachings "are the best I know'' and subscribes to them, and believes the way we live on after death is through those who have been part of our lives.

He adores his wife, Annette, the four children they have between them and four grandchildren, and another "dear son'', Jason, who they adopted but died as a teenager.

"All that he was remains with me.''

After experiencing "sadness and much happiness'' over the years, his advice for the best way to lead our lives comes to this: "Be honest and keep questioning and care about your neighbour.''

For Mr Stevens' part, he is determined to stay on this earth for more years to come and is fighting his illness.

But he said, "If I died tomorrow, I'd have no regrets. I've had a lovely life full of adventure.''

He is not preparing to meet his maker, not even yet being certain who that might be.

But if he did happen to one day meet Him, Mr Stevens said, "He'd give me a fair hearing, I think.''

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