This is the text of the article I was asked to write for this week's Radio Times. It was reported as a “lament”. It wasn't. I just thought it was quite funny.

Well, would you Adam and Eve it? Recently 3000 people took their clothes off, painted themselves blue and lay around the not-so-tropical city of Hull in varieties of heaps. All, of course, in the name of art.

 

Actually, I thought it was quite funny. I saw it on my phone while enjoying two days at the General Synod talking about sex. So, it seemed both timely and amusing.

 

What is it with nakedness at the moment. You can hardly turn the telly on without finding someone wanting to take their clothes off. I thought Big Brother was embarrassing, but clearly that was just the appetiser for Love Island, Naked Attraction, and Life Stripped Bare. At least the new paradise-building Eden (soon to arrive on Channel 4) has the islanders keep their clothes on – probably wise given the climate.

 

We'll come back to that in a minute. First, though, it might be worth knocking on the head one or two misapprehensions about religion, bodies and nakedness. The story in the Old Testament book of Genesis has Adam and Eve (man and woman) doing a naughty and then realising that they were naked. So, they run away and hide in the bushes in the garden. Which is reasonable.

 

But, the point of this is not that they were naked – that is, clothes-free; it is that they realised they were transparent… or, as we might put it, they knew they could be seen through. And this transparency was felt to be threatening rather than promising. So, they hid. And, funnily enough, it is God who comes looking for them (not the other way around) in order to find them and make sure they were OK for the future despite the mess they had got themselves into.

 

What is odd these days, however, is that some people seem to jump at any opportunity to get their kit off. Especially if there is a camera nearby. What is it that drives people to want to have not only their body, but also their character, habits and personality laid bare for an audience of voyeurs to criticise? What strange motivation lies deep within them that makes exhibitionism seem an attractive option?

 

I guess what lies behind these questions is the blurring of the lines between what used to be called the private and the public. Whereas society has developed conventions about what should be legitimately exposed and what should be kept private, it seems that contemporary society has binned these and invited the beautiful people to bare more than their souls in the name of the great god Entertainment.

 

Oh dear. That's wrong, isn't it? And now it’s not just the beautiful people. The telly is full of programmes about ugly people, people trying to cover up dodgy tattoos, operations that went wrong, weird people trying to make themselves attractive. And all in full public gaze. Why?

 

Maybe the ubiquity of social media has something to do with it? If breakfast used to be a matter of private interest, now the whole of Twitter needs to know what I eat. Obviously. The barriers are down, everything is open, nothing is hidden. Politicians and others in public life have their lives shredded by a prurient and ruthless media monster, insatiable in its appetite for flesh.

 

I am not sure this is entirely healthy. If the Internet has given our kids open access to all sorts of distorted views of what it is to be human – that beautiful and idealised bodies are to be valued above all else – then perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised at some of the identity and self-esteem problems faced by them as they grow through adolescence towards adulthood.

 

In which case, Love Island lies at one extreme of exhibitionist fantasy, whereas at least the Hull nudists were just ordinary people with ordinary bodies in ordinary shapes and sizes.

 

Still, there must be some places where it still is right to shout, “Get yer kit on!”.

Before coming to Iraq I was asked to write a piece for the Radio Times. Picking up on the Kate Bottley programme on Good Friday, I thought I would start from there. However, the article was essentially about avoiding the pigeon-holing of religious broadcasting. Here is the text, but buy the Radio Times anyway – the biggest-selling magazine in the UK.

So, it's Easter again. And there's a programme about Judas on the telly.

When Bob Dylan decided to go electric some of his fans thought he had sold out. The infamous sound of a bloke in the audience shouting “Judas” said it all – one name pregnant with a hundred accusations.

I feel a bit sorry for Judas. He is not just another one of those characters in the well-known story of the crucifixion of Jesus; rather, he has gone down in history as the ultimate traitor, the cheap and nasty greed-merchant who sells his friend and his soul for a few quid. I wonder what his mother thought.

Well, it's a bit more complicated than that. Judas had invested himself in the revolutionary leadership of Jesus of Nazareth … only to find himself let down. Trying to force the hand of the messiah didn't work, and, instead of provoking the ultimate uprising against Roman rule, the glorious leader simply let himself get nailed without resistance. No wonder Judas got upset.

I guess it's up to the observer to decide what was really going on with Judas – whether he is a traitor or a scapegoat. Whatever conclusion you draw, he's has had a lousy press. Just call someone by his name…

It's actually all about betrayal. And faith. And disappointment. And hope and meaning and living and dying. All the stuff of life as we all know it, in every age and every culture.

It shouldn't be surprising, then, that the case for or against Judas should be re-opened on Good Friday. After all, what better opportunity can there be for taking a fresh look at a religious story than hanging it on an Easter peg?

That's fine in itself. But, it begs the question why such programming shouldn't be scheduled at other times of the year. Why lock 'faith' stuff into the predictable slots when 'people who like that sort of thing' can be indulged for an hour or so? If sport and politics, economics and science can be exposed to the searching eye of the camera and the probing ear of the microphone throughout the year, shouldn't 'religion' get the same treatment – and not get pigeon-holed at the predictable times of the calendar?

Well, I celebrate those broadcasters that spot the creative opportunities to tell the stories and ask the hard questions. Faith provides a lens through which the stuff of human living and dying, leaving and losing, laughing and weeping, searching and finding can be explored. Faith isn't a box whose lid can be lifted from time to time in order to keep one section of the audience happy. Faith is about the raw stuff of life – and the questions about what it all means. Not just at Christmas and Easter, but all year round.

And this is why the Sandford St Martin Trust joins with the Radio Times to celebrate and reward excellent religious broadcasting. That's not broadcasting about religion for religious people; rather, it is telling those – often surprising – stories about people whose lives and interests and failings and celebrations shine a light on those questions that face us all as human beings. They offer a sort of vocabulary for thinking and asking and wondering.

No shoving stuff down people's throat. But, capturing the imagination and offering images and narratives that keep scratching away at our mind and memory, possibly opening us up to new, and sometimes surprising, ways of thinking and seeing.

Whether it's Gogglebox or Grantchester, Call the Midwife or Rev, a documentary or drama, there are some great programmes to celebrate.

Cast your vote.

 

It’s clearly a truth universally acknowledged (at least by journalists) that you should never let the facts get in the way of a good headline – especially when, it seems, they have had their Christmas party early.

According to the Daily Mail today, I have claimed “that the TRUE meaning of Christmas is sitting around the telly with the family watching the depressing Eastenders festive special”. The Times and the Telegraph also gave us their take on the article.

Put simply, I wasn't writing about the “true meaning of Christmas”. I also wasn't writing about turkey farming, the origins of the Christmas tree or the ethics of mistletoe.

The Radio Times asked me to write an article for their Christmas edition about the value of families watching tv together. In it, I merely supported the idea that, with the ease with which we can now view programmes on our own, telly still has the power to bring us together.

So, not the “true meaning of Christmas” exactly; but, nevertheless, watching telly together can have meaning, at least more meaning than merely slagging off the outfits, left feet or judges’ remarks on Strictly (for example).

Doesn't Gogglebox (for example) show how it can be a springboard for all sorts of discussions around values and world events – and even the ethical dilemmas raised by EastEnders? Seeing how others react can help us develop our own response and opinions. (And engaging with real people has got to be better than a constant diet of peoples’ perfectly curated lives on Facebook.)

In a world of solo, multi-platform viewing (and even though my own day is punctuated by frequent reference to Twitter), surely shared experience has always got to be more powerful than private browsing.

Here’s the original Radio Times article:

A couple of years ago I had the pleasure of presenting an award to one of our leading television writers, Tony Jordan, for his series that re-told the Nativity story on BBC One. Tony was one of the driving forces behind EastEnders for many years, who has since gone on to create many a small screen hit, most recently Dickensian, the mash up of Dickens stories on the BBC this Christmas. So, when I asked him what made him choose the Nativity – after all, it’s fairly well-trodden as a narrative path – I knew I was picking the brains of a master story teller. He replied simply: “I know a true story when I read one.”

Well, this is why millions of people go to carol services and nativity plays – to re-live the Story together. We engage with stories because they bring us together in ways that create a common experience. And not only did Tony Jordan shine a new light on a familiar story, but he also set off a wide conversation about our response to that story. How? Because people clearly watched it together on the television.

Royston Robertson, used with permission

Now, I don't think this is peculiar to Christmas, but there is something about this particular season that encourages us to share our screen-watching experiences with those around us, and not hive off to spectate in splendid isolation.

It isn't all that long ago that the prophets of media doom were confidently predicting the demise of the television as a medium for common conversation – that is, for example, a family sitting together and watching the same programme at the same time and in the same place. Well, they have been proved wrong. Despite a plethora of platforms, most of them individualised and personal such as mobile phones and tablets, television has generated renewed capacity for the shared experience. Does anyone watch 'Strictly' all alone? Why do people still talk about Gogglebox and sports games they have watched in company? We really want to do it together.

What I do know is that in a world in which anyone under the age of forty has to be surgically removed from their phone or tablet, the screen on the wall or in the corner still has the power to get people to sit together and watch together. Indeed, in a recent poll of 2,000 parents [reported in the Daily Mail last September], watching television was seen as one of the top activities for family bonding.

The exciting new manager of Liverpool FC, Jürgen Klopp, recently told an interviewer that his aim in life is not to be the greatest manager, but to “live in the moment”. I guess this is why he seems always to enjoy himself, whether being asked odd questions on the telly or watching his team play on the pitch. And his phrase is relevant to how we celebrate Christmas, too.

So, here's a thought: for those lucky enough to have someone to share the remote with this Christmas, put down your mobile, switch off your tablet and, like Jürgen, live in the moment. You may be surprised by what you can do. Whether joining in a carol service from a distance, watching an imaginative re-telling of the Christmas story, debating the merits of Dickensian, or the latest relationship catastrophe in Eastenders, the telly still has the power to bring us together… and give us the perfect excuse to ditch the personal devices and detox from the solo habits. Live for now with the people who are there with you.

In the original Christmas story, it was groups of people who came together to meet Jesus together. Presumably, this also meant they could talk about it all when they went away. Wise men from the East travelled together and, after a bad brush with a mad tyrant, worked out together where to go afterwards. Shepherds had an encounter on the hills with choirs of angels – no one-on-one experience here. Shared experience is always more powerful than private browsing.

In a world of instant news, multi-platform viewing, privatised experience and customised catch-up, let's hear it for the telly at Christmas. There's life in the old screen yet.

[Cartoon by Royston Robertson, used with permission]

 

Monday saw the annual Sandford St Martin awards ceremony for religious broadcasting. Lambeth Palace is a wonderful venue for this prestigious event and a large audience of programme makers, commissioners, presenters and others saw the best in religious broadcasting recognised.

The term 'religious' is a difficult one – and one that produces in some people a blanking reflex. Yet, as I have argued before, broadcast media need to take religion seriously – not for propaganda or naive evangelistic reasons, but because religion is a phenomenon that needs to be understood, explored, interpreted and explained if we are to defy mutual incomprehension and comprehend why people live as they do. Like it or not, religion shapes and motivates individuals, communities and societies.

So, this year's awards – the judging panels were chaired by art critic Brian Sewell and (ordained) veteran radio presenter Cindy Kent – dug deep into what makes for excellent programme making that does the above. The Trust also gave a personal award to retiring Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks and a new Trustees Award to Frank Cottrell Boyce, writer of the London Olympics Opening Ceremony.

Full details can be found here. The Guardian reported here, the Independent here, the Tablet here and Ariel here.

 

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.

Lambeth palaceLast night I chaired the 31st Sandford St Martin Awards at Lambeth Palace – the first event since I took over chairmanship of the Trust (set up in 1978 to encourage excellence in religious broadcasting) last year. The awards event brought together writers, producers, presenters and the creative teams who produced some of the finest religious broadcasting of the last year or so. The quality and range of submitted programmes was heartening and the shortlisted line-up was excellent. I quote from the press notice:

For the second year running readers of Radio Times voted Anglican vicar, Peter Owen Jones, their favourite – this time in his worldwide search for and participation in 80 expressions of faith.  Around the World in 80 Faiths was produced by BBC Religion and Ethics and broadcast on BBC1.

 The search for raw talent amidst the run-down Manchester estate of Harpurhey won the Trust’s Premier award for religious television with Miracle on the Estate made by BBC Religion and Ethics and broadcast on BBC 1 on Good Friday 2008.  Tim Gardam, chair of judges, said it “drew its viewers into the lives of others by the artless authenticity of the characters on the estate”, as, guided by a poet, a composer and a producer they constructed, rehearsed and performed a play about Noah and the flood.

 By contrast, professional excellence was the hallmark of the Premier religious radio winner, Tested, episode 4 of the collaborative series Witness, broadcast on Radio 4.  Nick Warburton’s dramatisation, based on the gospel of Luke, was “brilliantly acted and directed” and followed by a feature examining aspects of the story which was “a fine complement” to the play, said Gillian Hush.

 Television runners-up were episode 3 of The Passion, Frank Deasy’s dramatisation of Jesus’ trial and death, shown on BBC1, and Antony Thomas’s exploration of the history and importance of The Qur’an, broadcast on Channel 4.  The Merit prize was awarded to the Channel 4 programme which examined the scourge of superstition in Africa, Saving Africa’s Witch Children.

 Radio’s runner-up was Christmas Awakening, personal reflections by a poet, a musician and a minister on Christmas, broadcast on BBC Scotland, and the merit awards went to Heart and Soul: Fatwas, a BBC World Service programme explaining the real meaning of fatwas, and to Let Us Pod – Bereavement, a personal reflection originally made for the Roman Catholic diocesan of Clifton website, subsequently broadcast on BCfm Community Radio for Bristol.

RT2009My speech and a record of the event can be downloaded from the Sandford St Martin website. Both BBC Religion & Ethics and Channel 4 did themselves proud. The creative range of material commissioned by Aaqil Ahmed at Channel 4 augurs well for BBC as he moves into his new role as Head of the Department and Commissioning Editor for Religion TV. His appointment was announced recently alongside that of the promotion of Christine Morgan to Executive Editor and Head of Religion Radio. I assume that those being vociferously critical of Ahmed’s appointment will be equally critical of Morgan’s? (Don’t hold your breath!) I think we are in for interesting times and I look forward to seeing the range of programming being commissioned in the next few years.

The programmes that won awards need to be watched and heard. The most shocking was Saving Africa’s Witch Children – which followed Englishman Gary Foxcroft  as he raises money to help Nigerian Sam Itauma care for children who have been violently exorcised after being accused of witchcraft.  Gary is also trying to get the local government to protect them from the “Christian” pastors undertaking such exorcisms. It was hard to watch ‘Christians’ treat children with such cruelty (involving ostracism, murder, torture and prolonged neglect) – making one wonder what sort of Christianity it can be that mixes wild superstition with Pentecostalism.

I was asked what the Anglican Church in Nigeria is doing to counter such superstitious cruelty and could not answer. I will be pursuing this, though.

The great thing about the programmes on Fatwas and the Quran was that they genuinely explored difficult material in a sensitive but inquisitive way. The root assumption was that the audience knew little or nothing and had to be enlightened before any critique could be brought to bear. In both cases it worked superbly. If I have any wish for how Christianity might be treated in the media, it would simply be that this pattern be followed more often. It is too often assumed that we can go straight for the critique or challenge – on the assumption that ‘everybody’ knows the Christian story and what Christianity is all about. That simply is no longer true.

I would hope that critique and inquisition might follow after explanation and exploration, rather than merely assuming that explanation is not necessary.