HAS the tide turned? The BBC permitted us to watch religious programmes on both Good Friday and Holy Saturday, as well as televising an Easter Day eucharist from Winchester Cathedral.
This represents a significant advance over last year’s disgraceful void, and for that we are deeply grateful. ITV and Channel 4 are, of course, too deeply engaged in pleasing advertisers to spare the time to broadcast anything that might speak to the faith of the UK’s 20 million-plus Christian adherents.
The Good Friday offering — The Day Jesus Died (BBC1) — was, in fact, a documentary about religion; after all, you wouldn’t want anything actually proclaiming belief on this particular day, would you? The highly telegenic Bettany Hughes led us on an exploration of the theology of the Cross: what did or does the death of Jesus actually mean? This is, of course, a pretty basic question, and one that we do well to return to again and again.
She took us through a sequence of historical responses: Gregory of Nyssa, Anselm, Abelard, Moltmann, with the aid of some big hitters: Tom Wright, Vincent Nichols, John Sentamu, Rowan Williams himself. I felt a certain discomfort, as if these experts were too narrowly confined. The Archbishop of Canterbury gave us a masterly account (of course) of Anselm’s theology — but what we really wanted, having secured his time, was to ask: but what do you believe on this matter, Achbishop?
Ms Hughes’s approach was astonishingly thin on NT scholarship. The Gospels, she averred, tell us about the event of the crucifixion, but not much about what it means. Even I could suggest a few pointers to dispute that. And she implied that they are the earliest Christian writings, ignoring completely Paul’s prior documents with their crucial explorations of the significance of Jesus’s death.
I have some suspicion that she had been told that she had to make her presentation punchy, as much as possible like that of a CSI murder mystery, starting from nothing that makes sense and gradually building up to a solution — hence the irritating design framework, an attempt to present the quest as a forensic investigation, complete with pretend computer printouts clattering across the screen. Despite these significant flaws, this did indeed focus our attention on the Cross and make us re-examine our own response.
Easter From King’s (BBC2, Holy Saturday) was an actual devotion, a sequence of music and words taking us through the highlights of Holy Week. It was a treasure chest of wonderful things: Victoria, Lotti, Blow, Herbert, Donne. But why were the scriptural passages read from the Authorised Version? I’ll tell you why: because, for all its excellence, this was essentially Christianity-as-heritage, everything viewed through a lens of beauty and history, to keep it at arm’s length and soothe rather than disturb.
For me, although it picked up speed later, the exercise fell at the first hurdle by starting off with “Jesus Christ is risen today” and wrecking from the outset the stated aim of progressing through Holy Week. To have opened with, say, Pange Lingua, would presumably have upset the viewers too much. The glorious chapel was surprisingly empty, the notoriously godless dons of King’s staying well away.