Life & Faith

Out of the Fishbowl

A poet tells the story of his faith unravelling - and being woven together again. 

“One of my favourite sayings in the world, ’The fish in the bowl doesn’t know that it’s wet’ - that helped me to look back upon the fishbowl that I’d been swimming in.” 

Performance poet Joel McKerrow’s recently published book Woven is not a book of cookie-cutter spirituality. It’s not a book of answers, or programmable spiritual growth. It’s a question, an invitation, a beckoning toward movement. 

In this refreshingly honest conversation with Joel, he looks back on the lost faith of his childhood and the grief associated with that loss - and also recounts how he regained his faith, this time a richer and more holistic, robust version. It’s a conversation about restoration and rebuilding of broken things, and how the rebuilt thing is stronger and able to weather the storms of life. 

Check out Joel's book Woven: A Faith For the Dissatisfied

To Change the World

Sarah Williams explains how the mother of modern feminism fell off the pages of history.

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After her death in 1906, Josephine Butler was described as one of the “few great people who have moulded the course of things”. (For the record, she was also described by peers as “the most beautiful woman in the world”.)

Yet how many of us have heard of her? A bit too feminist for later Christians, a bit too Christian for later feminists, this pioneer of the movement against sex trafficking is only now being remembered.

Sarah Williams is an historian at Regent College and a research associate at St Benet’s Hall, Oxford. And over the last few years, she has gotten to know Josephine Butler well – she would even go so far as to call her a friend.

When Natasha Moore asked what she finds so remarkable about Butler, Sarah speaks first about her persistence – the sixteen years she spent working to overturn one law that unjustly discriminated against women.

“I don't think that we lack vision in our culture, but we definitely lack stamina … I think she did it by recognising that she couldn’t do it. Does that sound strange?”

For International Women’s Day this year, meet the woman who’s been called the mother of modern feminism – and join an ongoing conversation our culture is having about power, justice, gender, and what it means to “change the world”.

“We might imagine that the real centres of power are where powerful people change culture through influencing spheres of culture – media, politics, the law, and so on … And yet what's extraordinary about somebody like Josephine Butler or Mahatma Gandhi or any other of the great social reformers that we can think of in history, is that they somehow manage to see that really the margins matter a lot. And that what goes on at the centre, if it fails to understand what's going on at the margins, does so at its peril.”

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Sarah Williams was in Sydney for the annual ADM School of Theology, Culture & Public Engagement.

Investigator V

How many people can say they work undercover to bring justice to some of the world’s most vulnerable people?

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“I thought I was prepared for this work, but I really wasn’t. My three years in India ... hardest three years of my life, of all the things I've done, including being in the Marines. But it's three years that I wouldn't trade for anything. You couldn't have paid me a million dollars a year to do something different.”

He was a Marine, then a cop for decades; he worked undercover investigating drug cartels and the Mexican mafia, as well as with the FBI on police corruption cases. As if that weren’t enough careers for one guy, he’s gone back undercover - now for International Justice Mission (IJM), which works to end slavery.

The thing is, because of the nature of his work, we can’t tell you his name. Meet Investigator V.

“Honestly, my first reaction was, what slavery? I don't believe that. The IJM recruiter told me, back in 2007, 'There's 27 million slaves in the world, we were wondering if you would come help us?' I instinctively said, 'No, there's not. How can that be?’”

In this deeply moving episode, V tells Simon and Natasha stories of rescuing young girls from sex trafficking, and what it’s like when a rescue mission fails. He describes how it feels to encounter evil like this, and how he thinks - or tries to - about the perpetrators. And he explains why he wouldn’t prefer to be using his retirement to play golf - as nice as that would be. 

"I don't think there's anything that can prepare you for a little girl being raped every day, or a young boy that's been enslaved and starving to death, and stand in front of him, and do undercover work and act like you're there for nefarious purposes. I don't know what preparation would prepare you for that … But I'll tell you what, being involved in this work has been so good. It's dark, it's evil, it's ugly, it's costly. But the joy and the purpose that comes from it is just hard to describe.”

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Find out more about IJM Australia here.

State of Disaster

Life & Faith brings you some personal snapshots from Australia’s bushfire crisis. 

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“The refuge was very hot, it was very smoky, and there was no power. It’s nighttime - or at least the sun should have been rising, but it looked like nighttime … At one stage a number of us heard dull thud explosions in the distance. They were gas bottles - houses - so symbolising another house had just gone up. So we knew that the fire was in town.” 

The whole world has been watching this summer as Australia burned. In total, the area burned out is almost the size of England. The loss of life, property, and wilderness has been devastating. 

In this episode of Life & Faith, we give space to a few voices - the voices of ordinary people who’ve found themselves caught up in this crisis in some way, either voluntarily, or less so - in order to give some sense of how things have played out for a few individuals and communities. Air Force chaplain Michelle Philp, RFS volunteer Benjamin North, and Chris Mulherin - who lives in Melbourne but spends a couple of weeks after Christmas every year in Mallacoota, the epicentre of one of big fires - share their stories. 

We hear about a concentration camp survivor who found, in the crisis, a way to overcome his fear of people in uniform. We hear of people responding with anger towards God - and of what happens when you make a bargain with God to save your house … and he comes through. Koalas also get a mention. 

“One of the verses I’ve been reflecting on a lot is the verse where Jesus says, ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest’. And that’s been my prayer for the people of the Adelaide Hills - that they will come to find rest in Jesus in amongst all their burdens and weariness, as they’re dealing with the bushfires.” 

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If you want to donate to the recovery effort after the bushfires, a useful list of ways you can help is available here.

A Costly Sacrifice

A Hidden Life, Jojo Rabbit, and their stories of ordinary people resisting the evils of Nazism.

It’s Oscar season, and among the list of nominees you’ll find A Hidden Life and Jojo Rabbit, which ended up winning an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Stylistically, the films couldn’t be more different: A Hidden Life is Terrence Malick’s lyrical retelling of an Austrian farmer’s refusal to swear an oath of allegiance to the Nazis, while Jojo Rabbit is Taika Waititi’s satirical comedy starring Waititi as Hitler, the imaginary friend of the 10-year-old protagonist Jojo.

But both stories share a common theme: the need for ordinary people to stand up for what’s right, even at tremendous cost to themselves.

In this episode of Life & Faith, Simon and Justine discuss the way these films explore the ethical complexities of doing what is right, versus doing what is expedient.

They also talk to Vox film critic Alissa Wilkinson and film buff Mike Frost about hate, prejudice, and what might move ordinary people to make of themselves an extraordinary sacrifice.

Read:

Simon Smart’s article on A Hidden Life

Mike Frost’s blog post on Terrence Malick’s movies, including A Hidden Life 

Alissa Wilkinson’s Vox reviews of A Hidden Life and Jojo Rabbit

Re-listen to Alissa Wilkinson on Life & Faith talking zombies, faith and politics.

Misadventures in Wellness

Yoga, mindfulness, and detox diets: religion for those who’d never be caught dead in a church?

“Not everyone who goes to yoga is a spiritual seeker, but there is a lot of it (in yoga). I think yoga can make you start thinking about things, but it’s not really enough to fill that hole.”

Brigid Delaney is a columnist with The Guardian and the author of Wellmania: Misadventures in the Search for Wellness, in which she recounts her attempt to become clean, lean, and serene through an extreme detox diet, daily yoga practice, and meditation.

But Brigid also grew up Catholic. While she’s long been disenchanted with the church, that religious backstory gives her a unique take on wellness culture. She claims that for many young women, yoga is a form of ‘religion-lite’: a practice that addresses the spiritual yearning of those untethered from organised religion. 

Brigid’s account of wellness culture is haunted by religion in other ways as well. At points in Wellmania, she seems to indirectly quote the Bible.

“Maybe I’ve been plagiarising, unintendedly plagiarising the Bible in my work. Or maybe I just listened to enough of it as a kid that it has seeped into some of my thinking.”

Brigid Delaney’s Diary

 

Losing my religion: after the Pell verdict, the conflict for Catholics

 

It’s not you, Bill, it’s the country: is this election Australia’s Trump or Brexit moment?

Buy Wellmania: Misadventures in the Search for Wellness

Best in Show

The CPX team bring you a highlights reel of the year that was.

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Fear, murder, Masterchef, Aboriginal Moses, the moon: Simon, Justine, and Natasha sit down to mull over some of the stuff they got to talk about this year. 
 
In this end-of-year special, the team narrow down their favourite anecdote; share some stories behind the stories they brought you; and nominate their most uncomfortable and most memorable moments from the conversations that made Life & Faith in 2019. 
 
 
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Episodes referenced in this conversation:
 

Three Dorothys Walk into a Bar

Nobody ever remembers women writers - but playwright Jo Kadlecek wants to change that. 

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“In Parker’s case, I think creativity was a burden. I genuinely think she didn’t know what to do with it. She had these great outlets - helping start The New Yorker magazine, writing for Vanity Fair and for Vogue, writing poetry, being a theatre critic - but nothing fed her soul. It was a sad existence. She attempted suicide three or four times, and wrote a poem on suicide, and said it at a party with F. Scott Fitzgerald! What a conversation killer - no pun intended.” 

A play that debuted at the 2019 Sydney Fringe Festival brought together three women who led strangely parallel lives, but (probably) never met: Dorothy L. Sayers, Dorothy Parker, and Dorothy Day. These remarkable women all wrote and worked from the 1920s on - but are largely and unjustly forgotten, says Jo Kadlecek, the woman behind the play Speak … Easy

“That’s a line from the play: nobody ever remembers women writers."

Jo has been a novelist, journalist, and teacher (among other things!) and she’s been trying to get the Dorothys in the same room for the last fifteen years. One of the first women to graduate from Oxford, the first woman to write for the New Yorker, and a firebrand socialist who’s now up for sainthood in the Catholic Church … there is nothing about these women that’s not fascinating. 

In this episode of Life & Faith, Jo talks writing, motherhood, whiskey, falling in love, and being a woman of your time (or not), through the lens of the three Dorothys. 

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To find out more about Joining the Dots Theatre - which aims to combine the wit of Dorothy Parker, the theological depth of Dorothy L. Sayers, and Dorothy Day’s passionate compassion for those in need - visit www.joiningthedotstheatre.com.au

Find out more about Dorothy L. Sayers from this past Life & Faith Episode: www.publicchristianity.org/how-grand-to-be-a-toucan/

Take me higher

Community , transcendence and the music of U2.

 

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"Music's powerful. It's probably in all of us more than we realise. You'll be humming (the songs), you'll be thinking about them. So there is something I think is special about that art form, that it touches something very human and spiritual in everybody. And, I don't know, there's a great power that music has than maybe even watching opera, or reading a novel ... there's some portability of music. Not that you're carrying it around physically, but it's inside of you."

What is it about music that is so emotionally powerful in matching and even shaping our moods? Can music change how we view each other and our place in the world?

Scott Calhoun, creator of the U2 Conference, believes in the power of music to create community, an identity and a sense of emotional understanding. He thinks the ambiguity and mystery of the music of Irish rock band U2 helps explain the breadth of their appeal over four decades.

Here Scott discusses the traditions of the psalms, gospel and blues as key influences in U2’s music, and the way this has resonated for so many people - where joyful music becomes a means of processing life’s pain.      

“You can see over the 40 year career that human rights issues, the dignity of the individual, the freedom to choose and control and sort of be in charge of your own life, for better or for worse, but giving the human being freedom, that's the through line in all their messaging."

Performance Anxiety

Almost a quarter of young Australians struggle with their mental health, says Mission Australia.

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“I think my generation, everyone wants to have it all together. If you’re at university, you need to be working a really busy job, you need to be doing really well, you need to have a social life. And so then when you’re not okay, people are shocked and there’s a bit of shame attached to not being okay.”

That’s Michelle Basson, a 20-year-old university student opening up on her experience of mental distress.

Almost a quarter of young Australians struggle with their mental health, according to Can we talk? Seven year youth mental health report, a joint study by Mission Australia and the Black Dog Institute.

That rise in mental health concerns represents a jump of 5.5 percent over the last seven years, with young women experiencing distress at twice the rate of young men. 

In this episode of Life & Faith, we reflect on the report with Dr Jo Fildes, Head of Research and Evaluation at Mission Australia and psychologist Dr Collett Smartt.

We also speak to Michelle Basson and Nic Newling who grant insight into the pressure cooker environment young people find themselves in today. Both point to a significant source of strength in their lives that buffers from their struggles: for Michelle, God, and for Nic, a sense of purpose and meaning.

“That’s often what the medical model can miss. We look at how we get someone who’s got a mental illness to feel better in some way,” said Nic. 

“Then we often forget, well, then what? Then, what does the life of purpose and meaning look like? That's often missed.”

Trigger warning: this episode features a story of suicide.

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Nic Newling’s mother wrote a gutting memoir about the loss of Nic’s brother: Missing Christopher: A Mother’s Story of Tragedy, Grief, and Love. You can read chapter one here.  

Psychologist Collett Smart’s book is They’ll Be Okay: 15 Conversations to Help Your Child Through Troubled Times

Dr Smart also recommended the following apps: 

Among other things, MoodKit helps you identify and change unhelpful thought patterns.

WorryTime allows you to log your worries in designated worry periods. 

Three Good Things gets you to practice gratitude for what went well today.