Life & Faith

Missionary Doctor

What could make someone give up everything to serve some of the world’s poorest women?

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"As a junior doctor I went to Ethiopia to work with my aunt in the desert area, and we were just wandering around the desert with camels, treating people under trees and shrubs and things in 50-degree heat … You’d have to sleep with a guard with a gun because the hyenas get quite close, so every now and then you’d get woken up with a gunshot and this hyena yelping off in the distance. And then a bit later that night a camel was bellowing just a few metres away from my head and gives birth, and I get splattered with all this amniotic fluid."

Andrew Browning has spent more than 17 years in Africa as a missionary doctor. As a medical student, he spent time working with Rwandan refugees fleeing the genocide; as a junior doctor, he joined Catherine Hamlin at the Fistula Hospital in Ethiopia, dedicating his life to helping women who are suffering from debilitating childbirth injuries. 

In this episode of Life & Faith, Andrew explains how he could give up a lucrative, comfortable life as a doctor at home in Australia to help thousands of women halfway round the world. He explains the risks of childbirth in rural places, what a fistula is, and his hope for a future where women don’t have to face this kind of suffering. 

He also talks about the difference between being a missionary doctor or a secular healthcare worker somewhere like Africa - as well as how African and Western people respond differently to illness, suffering, and death. 

"I remember telling people in Australia they’ve got cancer, or 'You’ve got a life-threatening condition’, and the immediate reaction was 'No, no, you’re wrong' or 'Give me a second opinion; that can’t be true’, or they’re angry. Whereas if you do that in Africa it’s much more 'Oh, okay, sure. My time is up.' I mean they’re much more attuned to death and accepting of suffering as part of life, they see it every day … The poor in Africa, the physically poor, people say that they’re spiritually rich, and the materially rich are often spiritually poor - at least in my experience."

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Content warning: This episode contains explicit medical details, as well as descriptions of violence, that you may find distressing and that probably aren’t appropriate for kids. 

Find out more about Andrew's ongoing work to end obstetric fistula globally through the Barbara May Foundation

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This Side of the Wall

Checkpoints, borders, normalcy, and hope: a sketch of daily life in the West Bank. 

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Areej Masoud lives in Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus. In terms of physical distance, it’s very close to Jerusalem. In terms of social reality, it’s a world away. 

“If I want to go to Jerusalem, I need to get a permit. It’s not like I want to go, and I just start my car and leave. I would have to go through the pedestrian walk, and to do that I need to get a permit. The permit is not like a visa with clear criteria why you get it, why you don’t get it. I would need to go to a military base to request that, and you most probably won’t get it. But if you do, you need to go and wait at the checkpoint … it’s very humiliating.” 

Areej is a Palestinian Christian, which means she belongs to a people who once made up 30 per cent of the population. These days, they make up less than 1 per cent of those living on the West Bank. 

"I always felt jealous of other Christians, where their worst enemy could be their neighbour, or their ex-best friend. I do have an enemy, and that enemy is causing the persecution of myself and my people. Loving my enemy does have a different meaning, and that’s only when I was able to live both of my identities together. When you are not able to live that, like loving your enemy, you can’t consider yourself a Christian.” 

The Arab-Israeli situation is among the world’s most intractable conflicts. It’s enormously complicated, and a minefield of a political issue. 

In this episode of Life & Faith, Simon talks to someone who lives those tensions every day, and tries to navigate them using Jesus’ words about peacemaking and love of enemies as a compass. Areej shares stories of what life is like for her people: Can you be sure water is going to come out of the tap? How do you hold down a job? How do you travel when you’re not allowed near your country’s airport? And why would someone actively choose to live under these kinds of pressures? 

"Hope is something not to be taken for granted: we have to have it each morning. Hope is when you know what your mission is and where you’re heading to and who you are, and what is your community and what they mean to you, and what you mean to them.

It’s like waking up in the morning knowing you are going to have a bad day, but then deciding you are going to have hope, create hope. And if you don't have it that day, you know someone else found it for you and with you, and they will share that with you.” 

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Discomfort Zone: Os Guinness

Os Guinness talks freedom, human rights, and why the 1960s counterculture was the best moment to come of age.

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“In Europe, you could go to any crossroads - we lived in Switzerland then - and there’d be six hitchhikers. One would be reading Nietzsche, one would be reading Siddhartha, one would be reading Robert Heinlein, and one would reading C. S. Lewis, and they’d say ‘hey man, you should read this’, or ‘you should go there’. People were really thinking.” 

Os Guinness is an author and speaker with a keen eye for how culture works. He was born in China during World War II, survived a famine and the Cultural Revolution, and came of age in the midst of the counterculture of the 1960s. “I’m so glad that I’m a child of the 60s”, he tells Simon Smart. “It was wild, but I’m glad it forced me to think through my faith, and to relate my faith to all that was going on.” 

In this episode of Life & Faith, Guinness talks about some of his influences - and most outlandish experiences! - from that time, and the importance of going out beyond your comfort zone. He considers the many meanings of freedom, as well as why free societies are rare - and rarely last. He talks religious freedom and weighs the options: the sacred public square, the naked public square, or the civil public square. 

And in case that’s not enough big ideas packed into a short time, he also canvases the last 3000 years of Western history and tackles the question: are we now living in a post-truth and post-human-rights world? 

“A worldview is like a lens through which we see reality, and we will not only see certain things if the worldview is clear and accurate, there will be things, if it’s not, that we don’t see. Take a simple example: you see a mountain. The Greeks might well have worshipped the mountain. A South African engineer will look at the mountain: can I mine it and make a lot of money out of it? The 19th-century Englishman would have wanted to climb the mountain, because it’s there. … So, you see certain things and you simply don’t see others. Contrast is the mother of clarity.” 

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Os Guinness’ latest book is Last Call for Liberty: How America’s Genius for Freedom Has Become Its Greatest Threat.

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Homo Divinus

Denis Alexander on whether there’s purpose in biology - and in life.

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“You stand back and look at the narrative as a whole, that to me doesn’t look necessarily without purpose … it’s like a drama - it looks like it’s going somewhere."

Denis Alexander is a molecular biologist, cancer researcher, and one-time Director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at Cambridge. He’s been writing about science and religion for close to half a century. His latest book is called Is There Purpose In Biology?

"As a matter of fact, most evolutionary biologists I think would deny - to a certain degree, at least - the idea that evolution is a theory of chance. … If you live in a planet of light and darkness and so on, you need eyes, so you’ll get them; just wait long enough and they’ll come along. And if you go and live in a cave you’ll lose your eyes and they decay away. ... The whole process is predicated on the ability to adapt to a particular environment, particular ‘ecological niche' as we say in biology."

In this episode of Life & Faith, Denis explains what young earth creationists and the New Atheists agree on, and how the story of evolution maps onto the biblical account of where humans come from and where we’re going. He also covers Adam and Eve, heaven, life on other planets, and where cancer and natural disasters fit into the story.

"Clearly life and death go together; you can’t have life without deathEndFragment … it looks to me like what we have is a sort of package deal - so that all the good stuff and all the 'bad stuff’, stuff we don’t like, just go together. If you have carbon-based life you’re going to get carbon-based death; that’s the way it’s going to go."

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Denis Alexander was in Sydney to deliver the 2018 New College Lectures on the topic “Genetics, God, and the Future of Humanity”. Listen to the full lectures here.

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A writer’s vocation

A conversation with British journalist Christina Patterson, in this cross-over with The Sacred Podcast.

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“I remember at university meeting someone who said to me, ‘Well, the point in life is to get on, isn’t it’. And I was thunderstruck - naively thunderstruck - because it had literally never occurred to me that that was what you were here for. I was absolutely brought up to believe that you were here to serve."

Theos Think Tank in London produces a podcast called The Sacred, which engages people on all points of the faith spectrum in conversation about what counts as “sacred” for them, and how they see the world. In this episode of Life & Faith we bring you a recent interview that Theos Director and podcast host Elizabeth Oldfield had with Christina Patterson.

Christina is a British journalist and author. She was Director of the Poetry Society, and has been a columnist at The Independent as well as writing for The Observer, The Sunday Times, The Spectator, and The Huffington Post.

"I don’t believe in a God. But I do believe that human beings are hard-wired for religious belief and story-telling, and I do believe it’s a very deep instinct in us to want to make sense of things in those ways … so I’m much less intolerant of religion now than I used to be.”

Christina found herself traumatised by her experience of finding - and losing - her faith at a local church in her 20s. Her career in journalism has included writing about that, as well as about politics and books, having cancer (twice), and being single. She talks to Elizabeth about vulnerability, what women journalists are more likely to get asked to write about, and why it’s better to be honest about complexity.

Her book The Art of Not Falling Apart was published in May 2018. Though you’ll find it in the self-help section in bookstores, Christina calls it “an anti-self-help book”, and says she wrote it “to make people who suffer feel less alone”.

 

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Listen to the full interview and check out other episodes of The Sacred.

Learn more about Theos.

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Lifting the lid on Easter

The CPX team talk through fresh angles on the old story as they write for the media this Easter.

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What place - beyond public holidays and Cadbury Creme Eggs - does Easter occupy in our cultural imagination? Doing “public Christianity” means joining up the dots between the Christian story and what life is actually like in the 21st century, and festivals like Christmas and Easter are key moments for this kind of translation work.

In this episode of Life & Faith, members of the CPX team talk through the ideas they’re working on for articles and radio programs this Easter - and in the process, cover the three major phases of Easter.

Justine takes Lent, and talks about distraction and what the ripple effects of giving up Netflix might be for our lives. Simon frets about whether we’re getting worse at friendship across lines of disagreement, and how the death of Jesus on Good Friday challenges our increasingly polarised culture. And Natasha looks to Easter Sunday and what fairies, myths, and the human bent for the supernatural have to do with the resurrection.

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Setting the captives free

Hagar International puts names and faces to the hidden scourge of modern slavery.

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“You are the God who sees me.”

Hagar International is named for one of the first slave women we know about in history. Hagar was a slave to Abraham and Sarah - her story is told in the Torah, the Bible, and the Koran. Founded in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in 1994, the organisation named after her is dedicated to rescuing those who have been trafficked and abused, and to ending the cycle of modern slavery. It aims to truly see those who are often forgotten by society at large.

“One of the issues in Cambodia is young men being recruited to go and work on fishing boats in Thailand - and these are the very fishing boats that are sometimes stocking our supermarket shelves and providing the fish that we have on our Christmas table each year. These young men are promised much better working conditions than what they find when they get there. Often they don’t dock for many years. They’re never allowed off the boat. They’re forced to keep working even when they’re sick. Sometimes they’re drugged. Unfortunately there have been some extremely sad cases of men just being thrown overboard when they haven’t been able to do the work.”

Jo Pride is the CEO of Hagar in Australia. In this episode of Life & Faith, she tells Simon Smart the stories of Maylis, who at fourteen was offered a job that proved too good to be true, and Sopia, who having been enslaved from the ages of four to twelve, is now a social work graduate, empowering young Cambodian women through education. She explains the importance both of working with survivors of slavery to help them overcome their trauma, and of lobbying for systemic change, such as the Modern Slavery Act passed by the Australian government in late 2018.

“There are some days that I feel extremely sad about human nature and shocked in fact about what humans are capable of. But I think what I find incredibly inspirational is how resilient the human spirit can be and how people ultimately do want to thrive, how they’ll put everything behind rebuilding their lives ... but also the extraordinary commitment of staff that are willing to live in very dangerous situations.”

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Find out more about the work of Hagar at hagar.org.au.

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Ethics of What We Eat

A philosopher and a butcher dig into what we should and shouldn’t eat, and why.

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As society has shifted away from being in close proximity to farms and food production, people are increasingly concerned about where their food’s coming from - the condition under which animals are raised and reared, and certain farming practices, [such as] pesticide use and the effects that that may have on the environment as well as on human health.”

Philosopher and sociologist Chris Mayes has thought about eating a lot more than most of us (which if we’re honest, is already quite a bit). The ethics of food involves a whole raft of factors: not only the treatment of animals and the environmental impact of production, but also the treatment of workers and the impact of the growth of pastoral land on indigenous peoples.

“In Australia it seems natural that we would have sheep, and natural that wheat would be here, but in thinking of the obviousness of those practices and products here, we forget their role in dispossessing indigenous Australians - the way that the expansion of sheep, particularly throughout NSW and Victoria in the early to mid-nineteenth century, was coinciding with a lot of these most brutal massacres.”

Chris considers what it means for lamb to be Australia’s national cuisine - and how you make Scriptures that rely on the language of sheep and shepherds meaningful within a non-pastoralist culture.

Then: Tom Kaiser is Simon Smart’s local butcher. Perhaps unusually for a butcher, he thinks people should eat less meat. He sells meat products that many would consider to be expensive in what he calls the “Masterchef era”.

“Affluence definitely plays a big part. They can afford to have the product that they see on TV. We know for a fact that we wouldn’t be able to charge the price, nor have the same model we have in different parts of Australia. ... Ethics is obviously multi-layered. It comes to personal beliefs. It comes down to knowledge.”

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The Desire for Dragons

Alison Milbank on why Tolkien and Middle-Earth exercise such a hold over us.

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“It does suggest that within the real world there are portals - thin places, if you like, where we can pass to other worlds and return. And I think that’s what the best fantasy [literature] does. It gives you an understanding of this world as much richer, much deeper than we normally realise.”

When J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings came out on top of the Waterstones Books of the Century poll in 1997, Germaine Greer voiced the frustration of fantasy sceptics everywhere. “It has been my nightmare that Tolkien would turn out to be the most influential writer of the twentieth century,” she wrote. "The bad dream has materialised … The books that come in Tolkien’s train are more or less what you would expect; flight from reality is their dominating characteristic."

Fantasy: those who love it really love it … and for others, it doesn’t do a thing. In this conversation with theologian and literary scholar Alison Milbank, Life & Faith delves into Ents, elves, enchantment, escapism, the enduring appeal of Middle-Earth, and why Tolkien went everywhere by bicycle.

Milbank believes that humans have “a natural desire for the supernatural”. She explains why she loves unicorns, and why she’s not so sure fairies aren’t real. And she makes a case for the importance of imagination in reasoning, in doing science, and even in politics.

“To be human is to want to exceed what you are … For all of us, it doesn’t matter how wonderful your spouse or your lover is, they can never wholly satisfy you. It doesn’t matter how much money you have, it will never wholly satisfy you. That’s just the way we are. And the fact that we can never stay in the object isn’t saying that we shouldn’t get married, or we shouldn’t love people, or even that we shouldn’t enjoy the things of this world. It’s just saying that they can’t give us everything. There’s something in us that just wants more ... a kind of homesickness for something we’ve never had.”

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A Bigger Story of Us

Why are we so polarised? Tim Dixon offers not just a diagnosis, but actual solutions.

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“It’s much easier to hold very hostile prejudicial views of other people if you actually don’t know them personally.”

Tim Dixon is co-founder of More in Common, an international initiative which has published some of the world's leading research on the drivers of polarisation and social division. He worked as chief speechwriter and economic adviser to two Australian Prime Ministers. He’s helped start and grow social movement organisations around the world to protect civilians in Syria, address modern-day slavery, promote gun control in the US, and engage faith communities in social justice.

He’s concerned about how our social glue is coming unstuck - and what that might mean for the future.

“We are living in a pre-something period … The forces that are driving us apart are growing, they're intensifying. If we don’t pay serious attention to how we bring people back together and transcend these divisions, if we continue to play the kind of toxic politics that has been characteristic of the last few years, I think we’re headed in a very, very dangerous direction.”

Tim speaks with Simon Smart on a visit to Oz to give CPX’s annual Richard Johnson Lecture, “Crossing the Great Divide: Building bridges in an age of tribalism”. Both his research and his personal story mean that he’s better placed than almost anyone to make sense of our echo chambers, our battles over national identity, and the predicament of the “exhausted majority”. And he goes well beyond diagnosis, to propose actual solutions to polarisation.

“It is out of terrible catastrophe good things can come. In a sense, as a Christian, I think of that in the context of the resurrection ... there is something about the second chance, the renewal, the fact that we’re not always stuck in the story that we seem to be a part of.”

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