Life & Faith

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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Space for the Sacred

Philosopher and theologian John Milbank on left vs right, Harry Potter, and how none of us behave like we’re just atoms.

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If you’re wanting a crash course on “isms” like liberalism, secularism, and populism from anyone, it’s John Milbank.

In this wide-ranging conversation with Simon Smart, the philosopher and theologian has a way of never saying quite what you expect him to. He questions the idea that left and right are really in opposition to each other, calls the final Harry Potter book “a profound theological meditation”, and is enthusiastic about people’s longing for paganism.

What does he think Christianity might give people that’s surprising? “Pleasure,” he replies immediately. “It would make their lives far more interesting, exciting, and pleasurable - and physical, because they’re essentially alienated from their bodies if they think their bodies are just bits of matter.”

Does he think a revival of religion is on the cards? “The reason I do think religion may revive is that it is on the side of common sense … all the time people behave as if they had minds, as if they had souls, as if the good, the true, and the beautiful, the right and wrong, were real - and yet the scientific discourses which we have, or rather their scientistic reductive modes, can’t really allow the reality of any of these things.”

From politics to angels, Milbank turns his formidable intellect on some of the quirks and contradictions of our time.

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Hey, It’s Your Girl Adeola

A Nigerian YouTuber who's made a name for herself asking hard questions of powerful people.

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“I’m trying to wake people up. Not just in Nigeria - I talk about [other] African countries as well so that they can know we have a lot in common, and so that we can all together demand better governance and make our leaders accountable.”

Adeola Fayehun is a Nigerian journalist who’s built a global following with her YouTube show Keeping It Real with Adeola. It’s a satirical and fearless take on news that matters.

In 2015, Adeola made headlines worldwide for accosting Robert Mugabe, the long-time ruler of Zimbabwe, and asking when he was going to give up power. She regularly takes aim at the corruption of both political and religious leaders who she says are “scamming” their people.

“Whether they listen and change or not, at least they know that someone is watching … at least I can say I tried. Some day, if my kids say, ‘While all this was happening, Mama, what did you do?' I can be like, go on YouTube! I did a little something.”

In the first episode of Life & Faith for 2019, Adeola talks to Natasha Moore about vocation, Mugabe, pastors with private jets, and growing up as a missionary kid.

"Honestly I wouldn’t do what I’m doing today if not for the grace of God. I wouldn’t have been able to stand in the face of the attacks, and the backlash, and the threats. And so when people say, are you not afraid? - it’s not really me … if I don’t do what I’m doing, I don’t have peace."

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REBROADCAST: O Holy Night

Simon, Natasha, and John share the stories behind their favourite Christmas carols.

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It’s not quite a Bridget Jones-style situation – sobbing into shiraz and lip-syncing to “All by myself” on Christmas eve – but this year, Justine Toh is all alone in the recording booth for Life and Faith.

Regular hosts Simon Smart and Natasha Moore have scarpered off before Christmas, with Simon on long service leave in Canada and Natasha off to the U.S. for a white Christmas.

So Justine delves into the back catalogue of Life and Faith and unearths a gem: an episode from 2014 where Simon, Natasha, and John Dickson share their favourite Christmas carols and the stories behind them.

John explains why Hark the Herald Angels Sing isn’t just a beautiful tune but expresses rich theological truths in poetic form. He also discusses how Christmas carols often speak of two advents, or comings, of Jesus: his lowly birth as that baby in the manger and his promised return in glory.

Natasha relates the fascinating history behind her favourite carol O Holy Night that, among other things, briefly halted the Franco-Prussian war in 1870 as French and German soldiers called a Christmas truce, and was the first song to be broadcast on the radio in 1906.

Simon, invoking Scrooge from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, bah humbugs about the way Away in a Manger, as he sees it, diminishes the powerful idea of the incarnation: the Christian claim that God became fully human in Jesus.

“The sweet baby Jesus we’re hearing about in this carol – you don’t get any sense that he might actually grow up at any point. This idea that even as a baby ‘no crying he makes’ – I just want to throw up when I hear that bit,” Simon says.

“That’s not the Christian story. Jesus is meant to be fully God and fully human, and he’s not fully human if he doesn’t cry.”

Reflecting on the year when planes disappeared into the Indian Ocean, or were shot down over the Ukraine, and that ended with the Sydney siege at the Lindt Café in Martin Place, John says that the Christmas message remains one of joy, even in a gloomy time.

“It’d be wrong to think that Christmas was about happiness. It is about joy though, that sense that despite everything, God is for us and he’s come towards us as one of us. And that does give a perspective and hope that is real joy.”

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Cure or care?

An exploration of the role of emotional, social, and especially spiritual care in modern medicine.

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“Physical and psychological disruption have obvious spiritual consequences, and spiritual disruption has physical consequences. One of the things we know is that when people feel hopeless, their physical well-being suffers. So if hope is connected to spirituality, then spirituality is connected to medicine – that seems obvious to me.”

The Reverend Doctor Andrew Sloane is a theology lecturer in Sydney. As a former doctor, he’s spent a lot of time studying how the Christian faith intersects with the practice of medicine. In 2016, he published a book on this very subject, titled Vulnerability and Care: Christian Reflections on the Philosophy of Medicine. It looks at questions like, “How important is it for doctors to practice medicine holistically?”, “What is the place of spirituality in healthcare?”, “How can morality be incorporated into medical curricula?”, and even, “What is medicine all about anyway?” – a question to which he gives a rather surprising answer.

This week on Life & Faith is our 300th episode, and it’s produced by our inaugural youth podcast competition winner, Shaddy Hanna. Shaddy is a fourth-year medical student from the University of New South Wales, and his pitch was all about identity, spirituality, and holistic medicine. He’s worked with the team to research and shape this episode, in which he chats with Andrew Sloane about why medicine is fundamentally about caring for the vulnerable, and how a focus on measurable health outcomes often has the effect of devaluing the emotional and spiritual dimensions to health.

“I think it’s very important that we never think that only the things that can be measured count. We often think that if it can’t be counted then it doesn’t count – and that’s just wrong. Most of the things that matter most to us, in fact, are things that can’t be counted or measured – things like love, and relationships, and a sense that our life has made some kind of contribution to the world, that it’s been a valuable thing all in all.”

We also hear from Dr Nadia Low, a GP from the Central Coast of New South Wales who has spent the best part of the last decade working in hospitals, clinics, and community health programs across Africa – most recently, in a refugee camp in South Sudan. Nadia thinks Australian doctors have some things to learn from the developing world about how to care for a patient holistically.

“We really need to give thanks for Western medicine and how we can do great things to improve people’s health - but we also need to learn from those in the developing world context who are more accepting of death as part of the cycle of life. When someone’s really close to death, maybe we just need to pay more attention to the emotional and spiritual side of things rather than trying to fix or prevent death happening.”   

Join us for this important conversation about the goals and practice of healthcare in Australia and overseas, and what, if anything, modern medicine can learn from the life of Jesus.

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