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Television: The impact of faith

04 December 2008

by Gillean Craig

EXACTLY LIKE the number 52 bus, you wait for ages for a serious TV programme about religion, then three come along in a row. I suspect that the production teams of two of the three excellent docu­mentaries that I salute were bliss­fully unconscious of the centrality of faith to their subjects, but it has always been our prophetic function to point out the presence (or absence) of God in society’s con­cerns and culture.

First, Tony Robinson’s mantra throughout Catastrophe (Channel 4, Monday of last week) is: “We’re only here by chance.” He is telling the story of creation; of contem­porary scientific understanding of how our planet, unlike all the others in the solar system, came to support abundant life — including human beings.

Using every resource of com­puter simulation, we learned (well, I had heard already, actually) how 4.5 billion years ago, during the period of constant bombardment by asteroids and other debris, our infant planet collided with another body of comparable size. This catastrophic impact threw off debris that coalesced and formed the Moon, and set the earth spin­ning on its tilted access, creating day and night.

When asteroids had dumped enough water on our planet, the Moon provided gravitational pull to create colossal tides. All these unlikely circumstances worked to­gether to provide a uniquely mineral-rich sea, the ideal soup for the emergence of bacterial life.

People of faith can react in three ways: first, this is not what Genesis says, so it must be dismissed out of hand; second, look what a fantastic creator-God we worship, working away with slide rule and protractor to ensure that the colliding planet is exactly the right size, meets at pre­cisely the right angle, and so on, to ensure that everything works out just fine to ensure the emergence, several billion years later, of human­kind in his likeness. Or, third, we may hold some more complex view of a God of freedom, at every stage and in every cir­cumstance seeking to enter a deeper relationship with what comes into being. There are more catastrophes in the coming weeks to test our faith.

In Natural World: Clever mon­keys (BBC2, Tuesday of last week) David Attenborough proved that “we are not the only intelligent life of the planet” by demonstrating how closely monkey behaviour mimics our own.

The boundary between human­kind and the rest of the animal kingdom is far less secure than our ancestors comfortably believed. Exam­ple after example was shown of monkeys sharing some of our finest characteristics — social life, care of young, curiosity and de­light; and many of the worst — aggression, competition, deceit. This battered away at any doctrine of special creation. Are we simply highly developed apes within whom God has inserted souls? Or must we rethink the whole thing?

Finally, in After Rome: Holy war and conquest (BBC2, Saturday), Boris Johnson has written and presents a massive slice of history that, although social, economic, and resoundingly cultural, is driven by religion — the emergence of Islam, and its impact on Chris­tianity. It is fascinating and provocative.

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