This is the text of the Radio Times article which caused a bit of irritated response in some quarters. It will be obvious that it is not critical of the BBC, but congratulatory and ‘encouraging’ of how things might develop constructively.
A couple of years ago, before X-Factor ‘popularised’ it, I contributed to a BBC Radio 2 documentary celebrating the 25th anniversary of Leonard Cohen’s great song Hallelujah. Covered by more than 120 artists, Cohen the Perfectionist ended up writing and re-writing around 80 verses or versions. The lyric, full of biblical allusions, breathes some human realism into a word that would normally be seen as purely religious (and, therefore, rather suspect).
During an interview with Guy Garvey, singer-songwriter with Elbow and presenter of the documentary, he put it to me that “Cohen had hijacked religious language”. “No,” I replied, “Cohen has understood it.” By this I meant that Cohen had liberated the word from some assumed compartment called ‘religion’ and given it back to real people living in the real world and with real stories to tell. The song speaks of the ‘holy and the broken hallelujah’ – a phrase that encapsulates the torn nature of human beings who long to be ‘holy’ but usually manage just to be ‘broken’. Cohen’s point is that God is not surprised by this.
Leonard Cohen refused to allow ‘religion’ to be stuck in a compartment from which everybody else is spared any engagement. Religion and its place in the public discourse are much misunderstood.
Mention ‘religious broadcasting’ in polite company and you might well be faced with finding someone else to talk to. Either that or it’s assumed you’re really wanting more Songs of Praise on the television to keep the Christians (who haven’t gone to church) happy.
Yet, this isn’t the case. Religious broadcasting simply takes seriously the indisputable fact that religion is a phenomenon that has to be acknowledged and understood, if we are to understand the world in which we live. This doesn’t presuppose a religious commitment, conviction, practice or adherence any more than doing a programme about Marxism demands that only Marxists produce it.
The BBC’s Easter programming looks increasingly imaginative, finding creative and engaging ways of telling the Easter story, questioning the implications of the Easter story, capturing the experience of Christians celebrating the Easter story. The Preston Passion follows on from the superb Manchester Passion of several years ago, taking Easter out of the church and onto the streets. This enables everyone to be part of it and be confronted by it. A bit like… er… the original Easter events.
However, go beyond the BBC (and the odd bit of Channel 4) and religion has been dropped as if it were a toxic contaminator of decent culture. This ideological knee-jerk sees religion as an embarrassing problem (for which there is obviously no audience) rather than part of a solution (one lens through which to tell stories and understand people, their lives and motivations). ITV sees no need to consider religion – despite the fact that more people shape their lives around religious conviction and practice than attend sporting events. Now look at the relative budgets given to sport and religion…
The point here is not that religion should be privileged or protected. It is not to argue that religious propaganda should find space in the schedules of broadcasters. But it is to maintain that we can’t understand people, events and the way the world is if we don’t take religion seriously.
The BBC has a sports editor, an economics editor, a political editor and editors for other areas of life. It has no religion editor. Yet, if an economics editor is needed to help explain and interpret economic decisions and events in order that the public should be responsible citizens in our democracy, why on earth isn’t there someone to explain, interpret and communicate the phenomenon of religion as it influences people, colours political and economic decisions, questions values and shapes both individual and corporate behaviour?
There are two issues here. First, how does the BBC fulfil its public service remit by challenging the ridiculous assumption that the ‘non-religious’ world view is neutral? Second, how do other broadcasters get beyond their own prejudices and see religion as an indispensable lens through which to see and understand the world?
There are some shining examples – despite the problems of encouraging imaginative commissioning – of good religious broadcasting. Some are on the Sandford St Martin Trust Radio Times Readers Award shortlist: the humanising Rev, the powerfully questioning Forgiveness, the affecting re-telling of the Life of Mohammed, to name but three. But, the need is for a change in assumption and perception of religion as phenomenon, motivator and shaper of human stories.
Good media need good stories. Religion is not primarily about mere ideas; it is about people, communities and the stuff of human existence. It is rich, ripe and fertile soil.