There’s nothing quite like spending time in a potential war zone for putting other concerns into perspective. A week or two in Israel-Palestine raises questions of life and death, justice and oppression, propaganda and truth. You meet people who are up against it (on all sides of the divides) and then come back to the General Synod of the Church of England discussing religion in the media in its overblown terms. And just to add to the Christian mix, I discover that traditionalists are threatening to go off to Rome while Reform evangelicals are threatening to hold back their money and grow their own little church – threats obviously being a biblically grounded way of ensuring you get your own way. (That was ironic…)
But, it’s the media stuff that I am interested in on my depressing return to the UK. The General Synod will debate a motion bemoaning the decline of religion in general and Christianity in particular on the BBC. Fortunately, the bishops have proposed an amendment that is a little more grounded in the real world. However, this won’t stop the usual suspects from getting to the microphone to bewail the country and the church going to the dogs. (I think it was GK Chesterton who said something to the effect that it’s the dogs that keep dying…)
Before going any further, let me say clearly (lest I be misrepresented…) that I think the BBC has an obligation to cover religion fairly, fully, intelligently and interestingly. The BBC has a duty to cover Christianity (and all other religions)with respect, scrutiny and intelligence. This must include covering acts of worship as these are not minority sports. We can find a million reasons for moaning about when the broadcasters get it wrong, but we rarely stand up and shout when they get it seriously right. Religion in general (and Christianity – as the dominant religion of these isles – in particular) demands careful and intelligent coverage and broadcasters need to reject some of the ‘religion is only ever a problem’ stupidity that often dominates the media discourse.
And here lies the problem. A friend of mine who is ‘big’ in the media has always countered any complaint of mine about media coverage of religion with the sensible and obviously true retort: ‘Well, you have no right to be broadcast anywhere if it isn’t ‘good radio’ or ‘good television’. In other words, the churches have got to broaden their horizons, improve their creative game and see ‘religious broadcasting’ as more than Songs of Praise and Thought for the Day. Good characterisation of Christians in soaps and drama will be more important and effective than some of the stuff we usually consider in this category.
Come to think of it, we know little or nothing about the liturgy of Jesus in the synagogue, but we do know he used image, story and characterisation to draw people’s imagination into the Kingdom of God in everyday life.
In the last year or so, the best religious broadcasting I think I have done was to contribute to a thirtieth anniversary documentary on the Life of Brian, a radio documentary on Leonard Cohen’s song Hallelujah (before X Factor got its hands on it) and a documentary on Pete Seeger’s song Turn turn turn – all for BBC Radio 2 and none of them in the ‘religious broadcasting’ slot. This means speaking into the public discourse and not simply hoping the disinterested public will listen in to our churchy preoccupations.
I sympathise with the BBC’s Head of Religion and Ethics, Aaqil Ahmed. He was interviewed by the Daily Telegraph, but later blogged that he felt misrepresented by the article. He praised the interview printed in the Church Times (not available online until next week) as being more accurate and claims that religion at the BBC is safe in his hands. Well, as I said in a speech at the Sandford St Martin Awards last June, we will watch this space and see what the evidence is as time goes by. (He thought I was attacking his appointment – which I wasn’t – when I was simply stating the obvious.)
The reason I sympathise with him is not only his feeling misrepresented, but his insistence that the media environment is changing so rapidly that debates such as that at the General Synod this week feel a bit like discussing paddle design while the ship is either sinking or sailing away. The media world is mutating in so many different directions that any religion that wants fair coverage will have to be much more creative at engaging with a much wider range of media in a wider range of ways. This will demand creativity, imagination, confidence, risk, adventure and wisdom – and it will be suspected and hated by many Christians who wish the world could go backwards.
Christian broadcasters and media people need support and encouragement to keep going and keep growing in the face of church nostalgia. That is what the churches’ MediaNet is for.
Anyway, the debate will happen and the usual things will be said. The media world will continue to change and we will either be left behind moaning – or we will be in there re-signifying ‘religious broadcasting’ for new generations. We will still fight for Songs of Praise and Thought for the Day, but we’ll keep them in perspective and get the energy to try new ways of representing and exploring the faith in the public arena. At least it won’t be boring.