WHEN IS the Christian act of building a great cathedral to the glory of God “an act of cultural vandalism”? When, says Andrew Graham-Dixon, you tear out the heart of the world’s greatest mosque to do so — as took place, of course, in Cordova.
The first episode in his new series The Art of Spain (BBC4, Thursday of last week) gave our religion a thoroughly bad press. The 300-year-long golden age of Islamic Andalucía was a marvel of tolerance and shared learning, when Muslim rulers encouraged Christian and Jewish scholars, theologians, and scientists. It did not last. Power struggles within Islam hardened attitudes to other religions — but to nothing like the same extent as the final re-Christianisation of the Iberian peninsula.
It seems that our fellow believers demonstrated what real intolerance looks like: massacres, forcing whole communities to eat pork, and, finally, driving out all Muslims and Jews — even those who had converted to the true faith.
Mr Graham-Dixon delighted in the whole gamut of Islamic achievement — architecture, decoration, calligraphy, irrigation — even cuisine. I felt there was an irritating element of tourism about the show, with long shots of him driving his bright-red Mini up and down hills. But I began to appreciate that this, too, conveys a sense of the scale and grandeur of the natural environment.
Of course, Spain has also inspired some of the most intense and moving Christian art. It will be fascinating to see how our guide deals with this in later episodes.
Despite its military and social obliteration, Mr Graham-Dixon suggested that Islamic art and culture may have triumphed. The love of decoration, music, dance, the patterning of surfaces — in a thousand ways, later Christian Spain cherished and developed the heritage of the despised Moors.
No boys in your church choir? Gareth Malone’s new series, The Choir — Boys Don’t Sing (BBC2, last Friday) might show us the way forward. For two terms, he is at one of Leicester’s largest (1200-strong) boys-only comprehensives to form a choir capable of singing at the Royal Albert Hall.
The first episode showed all the expected problems: real men don’t sing; to sing would destroy your peer credibility for ever; singing is only for girls. The cool rappers with evident musical talent refuse to break into melody. Underneath all the bravado is, of course, a complete lack of confidence. They cannot bear the thought of being laughed at: it is not strength, but weakness, that holds them back.
The parallels with the difficulty of recruiting young people to Christian churches in Britain did not escape me. No wonder the few who make it either have the thickest skins, or are girls, or are gay. Mr Malone approached his task in a surprising way: introduced by the headmaster to the school assembly, he simply stood in front of them all and sang an unaccompanied folk song. It was clearly an act of foolhardy courage — and, therefore, impressed far more than any amount of careful talk.
It is not the most gripping programme, but we long for him to succeed, and — who knows? — turn around our death-dealing, anti-singing culture.