Life & Faith

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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REBROADCAST: Exceptional

Marilynne Robinson on the beauty, ingenuity and tragedy of being an exceptional human.


The human brain is the most complex object known to exist in the universe.

This is the thought that Marilynne Robinson begins many of her classes with. The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and acclaimed essayist is a Professor at the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop.

"I want to encourage my young writers to value their characters sufficiently to make them complex enough to be credible and also to value themselves in a way that makes them push toward real authenticity, real originality," she says.

Human exceptionalism is something that comes across not only in the characters she writes about, but in the way she treats her readers.

Robinson’s latest offering, The Givenness of Things, builds bridges across science and religion, theology and humanism, to provide a gracious, respectful, and ultimately hopeful contribution to public culture and conversation about life and what it means to be human.

"We know that given any possibility, human beings blossom into beauty and ingenuity and tragedy and all the rest of it that could not be anticipated and that the world would be utterly cruel without," she says.

This conversation comes from Simon Smart's interview with Marilynne Robinson for CPX's documentary, For the Love of God: How the church is better and worse than you ever imagined.


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This episode was first broadcast on 2 June 2016.


Free Like A Bird

How one couple found love, peace and hope, while seeking asylum in Australia.


"With courage let us all combine."

This is the theme for Refugee Week in Australia. It’s a phrase taken from the second verse of the Australian national anthem, a verse that also includes these words: "For those who've come across the seas, we've boundless plains to share."

It’s not hard to see a disconnect between these sentiments and Australia’s recent immigration policies. But, the reality - when you’re an asylum seeker or refugee living in the Australian community - is mixed.

"We were never living in peace before, in our previous life. But here we find, in Christianity, love and peace."

In this episode, we speak to a couple from Iran who are seeking asylum in Australia. The process for them has been long and the future is still uncertain, but they have many friends to help them, and their Christian faith gives them hope.

"You can be like a bird, free, free … and you don’t have to think about many problems. It will be solved if you pray."

Also, Justine and Simon discuss what it really means to "welcome the stranger". 


*Davood and Sara are not their real names.

For more information about Refugee Week, please visit:

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The Permanent Resident

Our literature is not as diverse as our streets, schools, playgrounds and offices.


"I grew up in India and now I have Australian citizenship; and I feel like I’m Indian and Australian, I don’t feel like I have to choose. I feel I am a migrant, but I also feel at home here."

Roanna Gonsalves is the author of The Permanent Resident, a collection of short stories about the migrant experience in Australia - from a specific point of view. Her characters, like herself, are all women from a Goan Catholic background.

"For a lot of Goan Catholics, the faith is something to hold onto in a world where race and class are an oppression. The church becomes a centre for finding worth. So a lot of Goans will join the choir in the local church – my dad sings at the Cathedral choir here – join St Vincent de Paul, go and help out in any way they can … so, that idea of giving back."

In this episode, Gonsalves unpacks the complexities of this Goan Catholic identity, and how it has shaped her life and work.

"We don’t hear as many stories about the diversity of Australian life as we should. Our literature, our arts, are not as diverse as our streets and our schools and our playgrounds and our offices."


Roanna Gonsalves appeared at the 2017 Sydney Writers’ Festival. Her book, The Permanent Resident, is available in bookstores and online:

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REBROADCAST: Identity Complex

The number of people who have "no religion" is rising in the West – but what does this mean?


While statistics suggest that religion is in decline across most of the West, being irreligious is perhaps more complex than it seems.

In the UK, for example, only 25 per cent of people who claim to have “no religion” are atheists or agnostics – but even within this group there is a mix of spirituality and beliefs.

"Plurality and diversity define who we are," Elizabeth Oldfield, Director of Theos, said at a public lecture in Sydney. "Many people would like to believe, and belong, but they don't know how."

In this episode of 'Life & Faith', Elizabeth takes us on a tour of the religious landscape in the UK and Europe, and how the West’s religious identity is more complex than we think.


Elizabeth Oldfield is the Director of Theos, a leading religion and society think tank in the UK: 

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This episode was first broadcast on 8 September 2016.


A White Man’s World

There’s sadness and hope on the long road towards Aboriginal recognition and reconciliation.


"He said to me, 'never forget you’re an Aboriginal, but do the best you can in a white man's world'. So that’s what I’ve tried to do. With the help of the Lord Jesus."

Every year, National Reconciliation Week celebrates the relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians. The theme for 2017 is: “Let’s take the next steps”. It seems pretty fitting because while there have been some important, and long overdue, moves towards reconciliation, there’s no doubt that many more steps still need to be taken.

In this episode, stories from Cummeragunja, a significant place when it comes to Aboriginal rights, recognition - and Christianity.

Hear from Uncle Denis Atkinson who explains his problem with the word "reconciliation", and says there’s only "one good thing" to come from white settlement in Australia for Aboriginal people.

Also, Aunty Maureen shares her powerful story about growing up on Umeewarra Mission as part of the Stolen Generation.

"We weren’t allowed to be inside at all, we had to play outside all day. But there were times when I needed to get away and there was one little room. That’s where I’d mourn my family. I’d sit there and rock backwards and forwards, just missing them so much."

Plus, we speak with Uncle Boydie in front of the new Reconciliation Week mural in Shepparton. It features the faces of his grandfather, William Cooper, and his friend, Pastor Doug – both men were iconic Aboriginal leaders who spent their entire lives fighting for their people.

"I think these two men would be very pleased if they could look forward to today and know what happened because of the work they did in their time."

Keep listening at the end of this episode for a very special thank you to a few people who made this Reconciliation Week episode possible – including a beautiful song by Uncle Denis and Aunty Maureen.


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No Angel

An ex-con’s journey from prison, to a stint in the Army, to holding High Anglican Mass in London.


"I was never an angel, that’s for sure. I started to steal … but I wasn’t very good at it. I constantly got caught."

At just 15 years of age, Reverend Paul Cowley found himself in prison - and after his short stint, just under 12 months, Paul knew he never wanted to return. So, when he was released, he joined the Army.

"[The Army] fed me, it watered me, it clothed me, it enabled me to travel - and it developed me as a man. Taught me about leadership and character, taught me about responsibility and discipline."

But there was yet another unexpected change to come in his life. Paul ended up at a church and hearing about Jesus - and he liked what he heard.

"Whether you believe he’s the Son of God or not is another question, but I found the character really fascinating. I found out that he was a strong man. I found out that he worked with the poor, the lost, the marginalized, the broken. And I really liked him for what he was doing."

In this episode, Reverend Paul Cowley walks us through the colourful history of his life, and why he believes that anyone can change - if they want to.


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How Grand to Be A Toucan

The illustrious life of Dorothy L. Sayers - novelist, woman of letters, and public Christian.


"… a woman is just as much an ordinary human being as a man, with the same individual preferences, and with just as much right to the tastes and preferences of an individual. What is repugnant to every human being is to be reckoned always as a member of a class and not as an individual person."

Words written by Dorothy L. Sayers in her essay "Are Women Human?" – but don’t call her a feminist. She didn’t consider herself part of the women’s rights movement, Sayers scholar Amy Orr-Ewing explains, because "we’re not a special class of human - we’re actually human".

In this episode, we take a look at the life and career of the inimitable Dorothy L. Sayers – a celebrated copywriter who wrote jingles for the iconic Guinness "zoo" campaign, a novelist and contemporary of Agatha Christie, a "woman of letters", and a public Christian.

"Art and literature point us towards that instinct for beauty, which is itself explained by who we are - creatures made in the image of God to create."


This is Part II of our conversations with Amy Orr-Ewing. Listen to Part I, ‘The Ring of Truth’ here:

Amy Orr-Ewing delivered the 2017 Richard Johnson Lecture in Sydney, ‘Is Christianity Bad News for Women?’ Listen here: