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Success story

04 January 2013

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LONG after we have discarded our belief in Father Christmas, we are drawn, in the festive season, towards benign characters and their wholesome stories. And so, for the Christmas Day edition of Belief (Radio 3) - Joan Bakewell's series of interviews with the great and the good - it seemed appropriate to welcome one of the greatest and goodest: Jimmy Carter.

The former United States President may have been derided as a failure in office, but since then he has set up the Carter Center, advancing international human rights; won the Nobel Peace Prize; and still finds time to teach Bible lessons in his home town of Plains, Georgia. He has been described as the best ex-President in US history, and his pronouncements on the religious Right in US politics and global warming will warm the cockles of liberal hearts everywhere.

The conversation ranged across President Carter's career, but it would have been instructive to hear more about the Jeffersonian distinction between Church and State which he identified as a guiding principle - one sufficiently strong that he was reluctant to describe climate change as a "moral" issue.

Yet he is happy to reveal that, at the Camp David talks, he, President Sadat, and Prime Minister Begin would talk openly about their faith; and that a plan had been hatched for a multifaith building on Mount Sinai - a plan that was halted by Sadat's assassination in 1981. In this instance, it was faith serving the interests of politics; what is dangerous, we might infer from President Carter's testimony, is when politics serve the interests of faith.

The contemporary retelling and reinvention of traditional stories is a particularly strong impulse at Christmas. The last time Radio 3 commissioned a series of modern Mystery plays, it was around Easter 2011, and one can understand the attraction of the idea. But A New Cycle of Mystery Plays (weekdays, 17-21 December) suffered from the same problem as the first set: that the modern versions of stories such as the Parable of the Sower or the Raising of Lazarus need to make something of the branding that the originals bring.

Other than re-situate the stories in modern contexts, and play around with names - Larry for Lazarus, Christine for Christ, and so on - none of these versions contributed anything like the kind of reimagining of a familiar tale which a half-decent preacher could achieve. The fault lies not with the writers, but rather with a commissioning idea, which must have looked great on paper, but is difficult to translate to the airwaves.

On the subject of reinvention, there was a telling moment in Follow the Star (Radio 2, 23 December) when, in the course of a discussion about the Star of Bethlehem, the actor/impersonator Jon Culshaw was asked to read the relevant passage from Matthew's Gospel. Rather than be himself, Culshaw thought it appropriate to do it in the voice of a former Doctor Who, Tom Baker. This strange decision revealed not only the problems the programme had with tone - fluffy and lighthearted, or serious and reflective - but also Culshaw's own obvious anxiety about his media persona. It would have done him no harm to read a piece of scripture in his own voice. If he possesses such a thing.

 

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