Life & Faith

Faith in the Firing Line

Personal stories of terror, forgiveness, and faith from around the Middle East.


"I have nothing against them. I really forgive them. What do I get if they were killed or anything? The only thing I would ask for them is to be enlightened. If they are enlightened, the whole world would be a much better place."

These remarkable words were spoken by a woman whose son had just been killed in a terror attack in Egypt. But her response was not an unusual one. Many Christians, in the wake of attacks on their churches and their people, have chosen to forgive.

Ehab from the Bible Society in Egypt says there’s a very simple reason for this - it’s what they learn to do in their churches because it’s what the Bible says.

"What the Bible is teaching Christians is to love their enemies, do not take revenge, to be forgivers, to show love in everything they do … So that’s the very natural response to these events based on the very strong convictions that they have from their Christian perspective."

The Middle East is the birthplace of Christianity, but in recent years, persecution and discrimination have forced many Christians to flee.

In this episode of Life & Faith, we speak to Ehab from Egypt, Nahid from Iran, and Nabil from Iraq about what’s happening, and how people of Christian faith cope with what’s happening on the ground.

"When I was in Mosul, this is what’s happened. We went to visit the church and it was burnt. But when we go out, I saw flowers. I told the bishops there: 'Look, if the people destroy the church, God creates new things.' There’s hope all the time. I don’t want to lose hope."


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REBROADCAST: Good For Business


Religious freedom expert Brian Grim explains why religious restrictions are bad news for everybody.


"Where faith is restricted for people, it makes them start to question: Does this society even want me? Do they value me?"

Religious adherence is growing around the world - and so are restrictions on religion. Dr Brian Grim is President of the Religious Freedom and Business Foundation, and has lived in many places where religion is heavily restricted. He talks to Simon Smart about why religious freedom is good not only for society but also for business, and why he’s optimistic that people of different faiths can live together well.

"Where you have religious freedom, and a rich pluralism of ideas, and faith is part of the natural dialogue of society - it’s not imposed and not removed - then you find better lives for everyone."


This episode was first broadcast on 13 February 2015.


The Story of Gender

Professor Sarah Williams on the importance of language and history when it comes to gender.


"We have lost the language for talking about any form of biological determinism. Gender has replaced the word sex, which is ironic given the fact that it was introduced to create the possibility of nuance."

Questions about gender are a big part of the zeitgeist - they’re incredibly important for us at this point in history, and incredibly charged. It’s interesting to discover, then, that the word "gender" is a relatively new addition to the English language. The idea of gender, though, has a long and complicated history.

Professor Sarah Williams from Regent College in Vancouver has been mapping the history of gender. In this episode, we take a deep dive into that history, and how we’ve arrived at the understandings we have today. Plus, we discover the key roles that the Bible, and Christianity, played in gender equality and women’s rights movements.

"Somewhere along the line, Christianity has been written out of the feminist narrative and of the women’s movement. Women like Josephine Butler, who argued very strongly from a Christian perspective it was essential for the woman to have the vote, using Christian theology as the basis of her political philosophy.

The late modern feminist doesn’t quite know what to do with Christianity being a radical force for women, rather than a subjugating force for women. And as a Christian feminist myself, it matters a lot to me that we recover this part of the history of feminism."


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REBROADCAST: Beautiful Proof

Exploring the beauty of maths, we may just find that faith and proof are not mutually exclusive.


"An equation for me has no meaning unless it expresses a thought of God." - Srinivasa Ramanujan.

Ramanujan was a self-taught mathematical genius from India, who moved to Cambridge University in 1914 to work with the eminent mathematician, G. H. Hardy.

His story, as told in the movie The Man Who Knew Infinity, is not only one of a brilliant mind capable of remarkable work, but of an unlikely friendship between a devout Hindu, and an atheist who was a stickler for proofs.

"Your theorem is wrong," Hardy tells Ramanujan in the movie, "this is why we cannot publish anymore until you finally trust me on this business of proofs."

Once described as "the most romantic figure in recent mathematical history", Ramanujan’s life also speaks to the idea of finding beauty in maths - and this is what we explore in this episode of Life & Faith.

You’ll hear from a leading Australian mathematician about her response to the film, and her sense of the relationship between divine reality and mathematical practice. Then, Oxford mathematics professor John Lennox shares his thoughts about the beauty of the world of numbers and patterns. We wrap up the episode with a poem written and read by former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams - you won’t want to miss it.

"Why are numbers beautiful? It's like asking why is Beethoven's Ninth Symphony beautiful. If you don't see why, someone can't tell you. I know numbers are beautiful. If they aren't beautiful, nothing is." - Paul Erdős


This episode was first broadcast on 30 June 2016.


Look at the Stars

Dr Luke Barnes talks science, rationality, and the wonders of the night sky.


"We’ve described the way the world works. We haven’t in any way explained why it’s there in the first place."

In this episode, we celebrate National Science Week with Dr Luke Barnes, an astrophysicist with the Sydney Institute of Astronomy.

Join us as we unravel the mysteries of the universe (sort of); find out if stars truly are the great lion kings of the past looking down on us; ask what an orderly world suggests about the possibility of a 'Rational Mind' behind it all – and more.

And he encourages all of us to look into the night sky and take a moment to contemplate the universe.

"I think it’s very good to be reminded of how small we are."


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I Don’t Judge Anyone (Except Christians)

For actor Anna McGahan, Christianity flipped the logic of life and of the entertainment industry.


"It’s weird because I was the kid that put on plays – and I was aggressive, I would make everyone do a play if we were hanging out with family, friends … However, I was much more interested in science, and I was interested in dance, and I wanted to be an author and an astronomer and a journalist. And I didn’t really consider acting at all."

Anna McGahan was partway through a degree in psychology when she decided to pursue acting as a career. In 2012, Anna won the Heath Ledger Scholarship, and she has since appeared in several Australian television series including Underbelly, House Husbands and Anzac Girls.

But there was something about her profession, and her success, that she didn’t feel completely comfortable with.

"I had always really hoped that I could be somebody that would give something good to the world, that would actually contribute. And I was desperately afraid that I hadn’t really contributed much but some half-popular television."

So she started looking for answers, and found them in the place she least expected to - and least wanted to.

"I had been trained in liberal arts education, I had come from the LGBT community, and I had come from a group of people that had felt so rejected by the church ... I used to walk around and say, 'I don’t judge anyone – except for Christians'."

But Anna started investigating Christianity, going to church, reading the Bible, and discovering the person of Jesus Christ.

"If this is true, it will change the whole world - and I don’t understand why no one’s told me about him before."

In this episode, Anna McGahan speaks with us backstage from the Justice Conference in Melbourne where she was performing a play she co-wrote with Joel McKerrow, People of the Sun. Anna gives us insight into the life of an actor, why she decided to investigate Christianity, and how it’s completely changed her life and work.


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REBROADCAST: Music and the Mind


How a music professor uses playlists and sing-a-longs to engage people living with dementia.


Ivy is 105 years old and she loves music. She sings along to "old-timers" in the car when she’s traveling around Australia, and listens to "sad" songs before she goes to bed.

"I usually have the music playing softly," she says, "I go to sleep that way."

The truth is, Ivy hasn’t done that for a while. She lives with dementia and has been a resident at a care home in Sydney’s north for the past couple of years. Her carers tell me that Ivy goes to bed pretty early, around 5pm, and she doesn’t have a radio or music player in her room.

Instead, Ivy has an iPod loaded with a personalised playlist of songs for her to enjoy. It was given to her as part of Hammondcare’s new music engagement program designed by former music professor, Dr Kirsty Beilharz.

So, what’s on her playlist? "I like all the old time songs," Ivy says, before the conversation suddenly shifts to why she didn’t learn how to play the piano. "My mother tried to make me learn but I was too much of a larrikin," she says.

In this episode, we speak with residents, a care worker and Dr Beilharz, about the unique and powerful way music and singing can connect with people living with dementia.


This episode was first broadcast on 12 May 2016.


Not an Inspiration

How a spinal cord injury revealed to Shane Clifton both the wonder and fragility of life.


"I landed upside down in the pit and I knew immediately I had broken my neck. I couldn’t move anything. I yelled out to my wife, and she thought I was joking at first. I remember just apologising to my wife. There was this sense that I’d done something I knew was going to impact our whole family drastically."

There are a lot of words you could use to describe Shane Clifton: husband, father, professor, theologian. When you meet him you’ll notice that he’s in a wheelchair, because Shane is also a quadriplegic.

But one word we’re not using to describe him is "inspiration".

"As soon as you say, 'that’s amazing because they’re disabled!' you’re actually diminishing what it is they’ve achieved. My point would be to do your best to treat people as people."

In this episode, Shane tells the story of how a freak accident led to him becoming a quadriplegic. He also explains his problem with the "positivity myth", and shares his insights on what the Bible and Christianity have to say about disability.

"The cycle of life, the wonder and the joy of life, all the good things that we’ve got in life, are connected to the cycle of fragility and vulnerability. ... If I can accept the wonder of the cycle of life, I guess I have to accept the consequences of that too, which in my case was a spinal cord injury."


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A songwriter and a philosopher contemplate death, loss and what it means to grieve well.


Nothing in life is certain but death and taxes. But if death is something we all face at some point, and grief is part of the human experience, we talk about them surprisingly little. In fact, it’s something we don’t necessarily do all that well as a culture.

"The word death is not pronounced in New York, in Paris, in London, because it burns the lips," wrote the poet Octavio Paz in 1961. His words still ring true today.

Some of us, like musician Phil Davidson, eventually find a way to deal with sorrow after the loss of a loved one.

"I could hear the foghorns of the ships that were leaving Belfast harbour and going out to sea," Phil says about that night after he last saw Agnes, his grandmother, alive.

"I was lying there just thinking about my grandmother, I could hear these foghorns, and I’m thinking these ships are kind of all lost at sea. I thought that’s a great kind of analogy of how I was feeling."

So he got up and started writing Ballymena Agnes. It was his way of connecting with his emotions and working through his grief.

For philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff, it has been a different journey. His son died at 25 years of age in a mountain climbing accident.

When he turned to philosophical attempts to explain this loss, he didn’t find any of them compelling.

"So I live with unanswered questions," he says. "I continue to have faith in that there is a creator of this universe and that Jesus Christ rose from the dead, but how I fit that altogether with the early death of a beloved son … I live with the question."

In this episode, we explore the tension that is presented in the face of death. On the one hand, the Christian faith says that death is much worse than we think and our instincts are right, it’s really not ok. But it also says that there’s far more hope and comfort to be found in the face of death, more than we might imagine.


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This episode was first broadcast on 21 April 2016.


The Good Book?

An historian, a poet, and a former lawyer discuss the Bible in Australian history and culture.


"I think [the Bible] is a good book," says poet Lachlan Brown, "but I do think it’s been used in terrible ways."

Lachlan Brown, historian Meredith Lake and former lawyer Roy Williams were panellists at a 2017 Sydney Writers’ Festival event titled "The Good Book? The Bible in Australian Culture Today".

In this episode, we look at the role of the Bible in Australian society and culture throughout history - its influence on the treatment of Aboriginal people, on Australian literature, and even the small - but significant - pacifist movement in Australia during World War I.

"So we’ve got this tradition of non-violence," Meredith Lake says. "It’s a minority tradition, but the Bible’s 'blessed are the peacemakers', and when Christ said 'put your sword away, Peter', those are really powerful. They give us a counter-narrative to the kind of nation we want to be."

And hear from the panellists about their personal connection to this book.

"It makes sense of the world like no other book that I've ever read,” says Roy Williams. “There are still mysteries of course, but it stands up superbly."


Lachlan Brown’s book of poetry is Limited Cities, and Roy Williams’ book is titled God, Actually. You can find them in bookstores and online. Meredith Lake’s new book about the Bible and its contested reception in Australia will be published in late 2017.

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