Life & Faith

Gloves Off

The gripping, often irreverent, sometimes hilarious history of the Bible in Australian culture.

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"It’s always been gloves off when it comes to the Bible in Australia."

The Bible is the most popular book in the world. But this blanket statement hides all kinds of realities - it’s loved and pored over by some, it gathers dust on many shelves, and it’s hotly debated in parliaments and universities, at dinner parties and in churches.

In Australia, across its history, the Bible shows up in surprising places.

"A lot of people have an opinion on the Bible, and that’s been true historically too," Meredith Lake, historian and author of The Bible in Australia says. "So in a way it was an entrée to the great debates in Australian society, culture and history."

In this episode, from convict tattoos to 19th-century feminist newspapers and an iconic Melbourne bookstore, and encompassing some of the more horrific and heartbreaking moments in Australia’s colonial history, Meredith Lake takes us on a biblical tour through the nation’s history. And she’s convinced the Bible’s core messages still resonate today.

"People try to bend their lives to what they take to be its meaning," Meredith says. "For the religious, it has a kind of authority in their lives that other texts don’t, and so we need to take seriously what they think it means."

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You can purchase a copy of Meredith Lake's book, The Bible in Australia here: www.meredithlake.com/the-bible-in-australia

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Life Is But A Breath

How a near-death experience helped one man embrace all of life – the beautiful, and the ugly.

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"Real faith is to trust God in the good and the bad."

After officiating a wedding, David Robertson wasn’t feeling too well and broke into a cold sweat. He ended up lying on the ground in front of his church, in a pool of his own blood.

Turns out, the Scottish church minister had contracted a virus that created two ulcers over a major artery, which had caused the bleeding. In hospital, his condition went from bad to worse. His lungs went down to 30 per cent capacity, he got pneumonia, and he needed close to 16 litres of blood product throughout his stay. His doctors told his wife: "it’s 50-50 whether he’ll live."

It was a long and traumatic road back to health, but David is now very much alive and well – which is a miracle. In fact, his doctor told him that he doesn’t understand how David’s still alive, or at least not in a vegetative state.

During a conversation with his doctor’s wife, David told her, "your husband saved my life." She replied, "[My husband] says that God saved your life. He says there are only two people in his whole career – and he’s been a surgeon for over 30 years – that he regards as a miracle. And you’re one of them."

In this episode, David shares his near-death experience, the road to recovery, and the lessons he learned along the way.

"Life is but a breath. But also, life is filled with glorious things, as well as the ugly."

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An Astronomer’s Guide to the Galaxy

Astrophysicist Jennifer Wiseman on star-gazing, human significance, and the prospect of extra-terrestrial life.

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"If you fund some level of basic science, it lifts the human spirit, it tends to give people motivation to do other kinds of science as well, it feeds a lot of other worthwhile human enterprises."

Jennifer Wiseman grew up in rural Arkansas, an experience which gave her an abiding love of nature – and introduced her to the wonders of the night sky.

"In the case of astronomy I think it feeds into art and music and philosophy and theology and all kinds of things," Wiseman continues. "So I would say that, as human beings, we need some investment in these 'spirit-lifting' activities - and certainly exploring our universe is a very basic human curiosity that I think lifts the human spirit."

It wasn’t until years later that she realised she could turn her interest in space into a full-time job. These days, she’s an astrophysicist … one who has a comet named after her.

"Science is a wonderful gift and tool to address certain types of questions. How does gravity work? How do stars form? What’s the evolutionary history of the universe? … But science is not really good at answering certain other types of questions, like why are we here, or how should I live, or can I have a relationship with God? These kinds of things I can’t measure with my microscope or my telescope."

When you get to have a conversation with someone like Jennifer Wiseman, you want to ask all the questions. How far can we see? Why is the universe beautiful? How can humans be significant, given the vastness of space? How do you get a comet named after you? And, of course: what about life beyond Earth?

"I wouldn’t be surprised if we found, maybe years in the future, that there are certainly habitable planets, and maybe biological activity on other planets. It would make a lot of sense to me."

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Jesus, Outside the Box

Will the real Jesus please stand up? John Dickson’s new book is a quest for the historical Jesus.

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“The real Jesus in the sources is far more interesting. The Jesus there is striking, dangerous, intriguing, beautiful, bizarre, scary, and incredibly comforting. You just can’t pin him down. That’s the great thing about the historical Jesus – there’s no way of fitting him inside a box.”

In this episode, we explore the major portraits of the historical Jesus and what they might mean to us today.

“I think he’s the best card Christians have – maybe the only card. People are generally positive towards Jesus and it’s partly because there is a vague memory of a true aspect of Jesus, which is that he rebelled against the religious authorities of the day. That just resonates with people.”

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John Dickson was a speaker at the Sydney Writers’ Festival earlier this year. You can find out more about the festival here: www.swf.org.au 

A Doubter's Guide to Jesus: An Introduction to the Man from Nazareth for Believers and Skeptics by John Dickson is available to purchase now: www.bit.ly/2kJSbiH 

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A Great Spirit

Two Aboriginal women give their first-hand accounts of growing up on Christian missions.

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"I do a lot of praying. I just got to hand it over to the Lord. He understands what I’m going through and how I’m feeling. He went through a lot of grief himself and it must still break his heart to see the way some of us live."

Ngardarb Riches is a Bardi Jawi woman from the West Kimberley Coast of Australia. Aunty Maureen is a Barngala woman from South Australia. They’ve both lived on Christian missions, and they’ve both experienced the good and the bad that Christian missionaries and the government have done for Aboriginal people.

The bad includes the decimation of Aboriginal culture and language, and the removal from their land.

"My two eldest brothers went together to one boys’ home in Adelaide, my three youngest brothers went together to another boys’ home in Adelaide, and my two sisters went to a foster home in Adelaide," Aunty Maureen says. "The missionary said, 'could you take the other, the oldest girl?' And that lady replied, 'I only want the two pretty young girls.' That broke my heart because I wasn’t used to being separated from my family."

Aunty Maureen was eight years old when she was separated from her family. But somehow, she still calls the Christian mission where she lived a "happy place". She’s emphatic that, in the midst of all her loss and pain, the Christian faith was a source of comfort for her.

"We were just young kids all hurting," she says. "All we knew was the love of God and God loved us. The missionaries really cared for us and that’s the way they showed their love."

For Ngardarb, she was born in Derby during a period when her people were separated from their home, on what had been the Sunday Island Mission. It had closed down during the implementation of the Australian government’s assimilation policy.

It was another missionary couple who would later help the Bardi Jawi people return home – and Ngardarb was able to grow up on her people’s land.

"My people are the salt water people, so a lot of our living was in and around the islands and eating seafood, collecting it," Ngardarb says.

"So as a child, I still had that. Growing up I was so lucky to have those experiences where we would get the poison root from the bush, take it down when the tide went out and put it in the pools – that would stun the fish, it would take oxygen from the water and we were able to do traditional fishing. I was really lucky and it still happens where I come from now, that’s still being passed down to our generation today."

She says that if Christian missions hadn’t existed, a lot of her people would not be alive today.

"A lot of our families and tribes would have been wiped out because that was the intention of the government, because they said that we were a dying race," she says. "But we’re survivors, and a lot of the Christian missions gave us that opportunity to have our families survive, and to have that safe haven. We had to stop a lot of our practices and beliefs and stuff but at least it was somewhere safe."

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We interviewed John Briggs, Ngardarb Riches, and Aunty Maureen for our documentary, For the Love of God: How the church is better and worse than you ever imagined - it's in cinemas NOW. To book tickets, or host your own screening, visit: www.betterandworse.film

Learn more about the long road towards Aboriginal recognition and reconciliation by listening to this episode from the Life & Faith archives: http://bit.ly/2kz3I4l

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State of the Nation

Social researcher Hugh Mackay on building a more compassionate and less anxious society.

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"Some public health experts are now saying that loneliness is a greater risk to our public health than obesity."

Hugh Mackay, one of Australia’s leading researchers, believes there’s something wrong with the state of our nation and the lives of its citizens.

"You can look at specific factors in individual cases and say, this person is anxious because of rent stress, or because of job insecurity, or because of relationship breakdown, or loss of faith … but when you’ve got epidemic proportions, I think you have to look at society," he says. "We need to live in communities that sustain us and nurture us, protect us and give us a sense of identity. When we feel cut off from the herd, anxiety goes up."

In his latest book, Australia Reimagined: Towards a more compassionate, less anxious society, Hugh Mackay addresses some of the forces at work in our communities - including disappointment in political leadership, loss of faith in once-respected institutions like the church, faltering education standards, and the proliferation of social media - that are causing us to experience, sometimes paradoxically, more loneliness.

"[Social media is] training us to communicate with each other in a way that strips the process of all the nuance … all the things that imply meaning that’s not just in the words."

He also says things may have to get worse before they get better.

"It’s the death and resurrection model, in a way. There has to be a death before there’s a renewal. ... I think politics will have to become more of a shamble, education levels will have to sink even further, the epidemic of mental illness will have to become even greater before we say this is now out of control. That’s assuming there isn’t a global war or economic disaster of some kind.”

But Hugh Mackay remains confident that people will figure out a way forward, and communities will flourish.

“What I’m more optimistic about is that our sense of being human, and the sense of connectedness with other humans, will prevail - and will be the thing that pulls us back from the brink of disaster.”

And faith, he suggests, will play a role in the renewal of our communities towards a more compassionate and less anxious society.

"Even among people who don’t have any religious faith, they admire it and often envy it," he says. "People recognise that the expression of faith, whether in medical care, social services, or education, is likely to be of a very high standard because it’s driven by this faith in the higher being, this higher power."

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Australia Reimagined: Towards a more compassionate, less anxious society is in stores now and available online: www.bit.ly/2s8OVRx 

Hugh Mackay was a speaker at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival. To find out more about the festival, or to listen to interviews with other speakers, go to: www.swf.org.au 

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In The Name Of Christ

The greatest facepalm of the Crusades - and more stories of crusaders turning on other Christians.

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"Three days was the accepted period of a sack in the Middle Ages. They sacked it for a little bit more than that … it greatly damaged the city of Constantinople. And that ultimately was the end of the Crusade. It had never raised a sword against the Muslim, but it had actually conquered and destroyed the greatest Christian city in the world."

When it comes to the sins of the Christian church, the Crusades are one of the first things that come to mind. The scholars point out that a lot of what we think we know about the Crusades is off the mark - but sometimes, the reality was even worse than people think.

In this episode of Life & Faith, we’re looking at a lesser-known aspect of the Crusades. It turns out that not all Crusades were against Muslims - nor did they all take place in the Middle East.

For example, the sack of Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) occurred in 1204. The taking of this great Christian city, and the slaughter of Christians that was the result, was far from the original objective of the Fourth Crusade. The death of Christians was - in modern military parlance - collateral damage.

"Now once the city fell there’s no doubt that the crusaders did not play by their own rules," says Professor Thomas Madden from Saint Louis University, author of The Concise History of the Crusades.

"They all swore on relics before the attack that if the city fell they would not touch the churches, they would not touch any of the monasteries or the monks or the women in the monasteries. And in fact once the city fell, it was chaos."

The Albigensian Crusade also too place in the 13th century - in southern France, not the Middle East. It was a brutal campaign against other Christians who were deemed "heretics" because of their unorthodox and "dangerous" beliefs.

The Pope resorted to a military solution to address this rival spiritual movement: kill everyone.

"The Albigensian Crusade is in many ways an anomaly in medieval Europe," says Professor Christine Ames, a historian of medieval Europe from The University of South Carolina.

"It is shocking to people at the time, the war is exceptionally brutal, exceptionally bloody."

Justine Toh is your guide on this tour of how the church has been even worse than you ever imagined - and why it’s important to remember and acknowledge such history.

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For the Love of God: How the church is better and worse than you ever imagined is in cinemas NOW. To book tickets, or host your own screening, visit: www.betterandworse.film 

For more on the Crusades, here’s an earlier episode of Life & Faith covering the major myths and misconceptions about this period in history: www.publicchristianity.org/life-faith-crusades

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In Sickness and in Health

The hungry, the sick, the imprisoned - or as the Knights of Malta called them, "Our Lords the Sick".

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"The Knights Hospitaller, as they were known, got permission to set up the first hospital in Jerusalem. They were connected with the Crusades and they were a sovereign military order. Why? Because they had to, in the course of their work, actually defend - sometimes with the sword - their work of being Hospitallers."

Iain Benson is a Professor of Law the University of Notre Dame in Australia, he’s worked on human rights charters around the world, and he’s also a member of the Order of Malta (also known the Knights Hospitaller, among their many names).

Traditionally, their chief vow was "to honour Our Lords the Sick".

It’s a strange phrase, but what it means is that when they look at a sick person – any sick person, rich or poor, Christian or Muslim or Jewish – they see Jesus, their Lord. So, they care for him or her. When Jesus says "whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me" ... the Knights Hospitaller take him seriously.

Today, you may have come across some of the Order of Malta’s modern off-shoots such as St John Ambulance, which services concerts and sporting events across Australia, and still provide the main ambulance service in Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

One thousand years old, this order of knights is still going strong – all inspired by a particular story Jesus told more than a thousand years before that.

In this episode of Life & Faith, we take a close look at the work of the Knights Hospitaller. We note how unusual and attractive this kind of extreme care and compassion was in the Roman world, when Christians first started practising it – it was one reason why so many people became part of the Christian movement in the first few centuries after Jesus. And we consider the perspective of thinkers who would challenge the idea that caring for the sick is a self-evident good.

"Christians believe that each person is made in the image of God, and thus each person should be cared for, even if they are very ill," says Lynn Cohick from Wheaton College.

"This shocked pagans who were really anxious to get out of the way of any kind of sickness, they just would flee a city or a town. And the Christians stayed. That made a real impact on the pagans who wondered how could these Christians love – even at the cost, perhaps, of their own lives."

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For The Love of God: How the church is better and worse than you ever imagined is in cinemas now. Buy tickets, or host your own screening: www.betterandworse.film 

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REBROADCAST: The Long Shadow of Slavery

A confronting - and deeply personal - look at the roots of racial division in the US.

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"We still live under the long shadow of the plantation. Indeed, freedoms have been spread to a larger group of people over time, but that spread has been at the cost of ongoing oppression of black people in ways that have become very apparent thanks to video cams and cell phones that betray the brutality of the police state that we sometimes live in as black people."

Trayvon Martin. Michael Brown. Alton Sterling. These are names familiar across the world: the names of African-American men – three of many – who died after being shot by white men. Those who shot them have all been acquitted of their deaths, sparking national outrage and re-igniting the old debate on racial profiling and civil rights.

In this episode of Life & Faith, we asked Professor Albert J. Raboteau from Princeton University, an expert in the African-American religious experience, to walk us through the history of race relations in the US, and the deep roots of racial division – from the plantations to the Black Lives Matter movement today.

But he’s not just an expert – Professor Raboteau has lived the reality of racism as well:

"My father was killed by a white man in Mississippi, three months before I was born. The white man who killed him was never tried. He claimed self-defence and he wasn’t indicted even. … When I was 17 and getting ready to go off to college, [my mother and stepfather] sat me down and, for the first time, explained to me what had happened.  They said, 'The reason we didn’t tell you before was we didn’t want you to grow up hating white people'."

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For The Love of God: How the church is better and worse than you ever imagined is in cinemas from May 9. Buy tickets, or host your own screening: www.betterandworse.film

Professor Albert J. Raboteau's latest book, American Prophets
Seven Religious Radicals and Their Struggle for Social and Political Justice, is available to purchase here: www.press.princeton.edu/titles/10655.html

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This episode of Life & Faith was first broadcast on 2 March 2017.

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Belfast Cabbie

Jim lived through the Troubles. He takes us on a very personal tour of this fraught history.

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"When I used to get up out of bed in the mornings, my first thought was: how do we avoid being murdered, by the murder gangs? Also, how do we avoid the British army? And also, how do we attack the British Army? The change being today, when my kids get out of bed in the morning, they say, well ok, we have to go to work to get our mortgage paid. You see the change?"

It’s been 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement ended the 30-year period of conflict in Northern Ireland known as the Troubles.

Jim was 8 years old at the start of the conflict, so 1998 was the first time in his life he really remembers seeing peace. These days, he takes cab tours around Belfast – which is how Simon met him, in the course of filming a segment on the conflict for our documentary, For the Love of God: How the church is better and worse than you ever imagined.

The Troubles is often cited as evidence that Christianity inevitably causes division and bloodshed. And it’s true that it was in some sense a clash between Catholics and Protestants. But it’s also a lot more complicated than that.

"Remember, in 1979 the Pope got down on his knees here and he said please, please, stop the violence. It continued on. Also remember, the Queen of England on many, many occasions, she appealed to the Protestant paramilitaries, the loyalist paramilitaries, to stop murdering people. Again, they didn’t listen. So religion was never taken on board by these paramilitary leaders."

Jim tells Simon about life during the Troubles: about the first Protestant he ever met; a game called "spot the bomb" that he and his mates used to play; and the story of the time he was shot - twice - by a British soldier. Join us on a very personal tour of this fraught history.

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For The Love of God: How the church is better and worse than you ever imagined is in cinemas from May 9. Buy tickets, or host your own screening: www.betterandworse.film

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