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Too much chat

25 April 2014


HOLY WEEK: and religious radio is given over to "meditations" - except, since broadcasting is all about making noise, the meditations we are offered are full of music and chatter. Thus, the Archbishop of York's Good Friday Meditation (Radio 4) was suffused with the sounds of York, and peppered with hymns, readings, and interviews. It was all good stuff; but it felt more as if we were on a pilgrimage on an open-topped tourist bus than journeying into the depths of our penitent souls.

There is at least one thing to thank the programme for: that it gave an airing to a recording of Handel's Messiah which I had not heard before, by the Dunedin Consort, and the incomparable Clare Wilkinson in "He was despised". This was about the best singing of this aria I have heard.

At the Foot of the Cross (Radio 2, Good Friday) offered a sequence of music and readings in a different style. This was Friday Night is Music Night relocated to Winchester Cathedral; and the combination of the cathedral acoustics, the BBC Concert Orchestra with massed choirs, and some harmonisations that made the green hill far away as garish as the set of Teletubbies presented some obvious problems of co-ordination which had not been resolved when I had to tune out.

In The Retreating Roar, Madeleine Bunting provided a week of essays that took as their starting-point Matthew Arnold's poetic commentary on the decline of Christendom, "Dover Beach". How does faith die? was her central question; and, looking at values central to Christianity, she argued for the relocation of Christian thinking in the secular world.

The most successful of these talks was the first, since "Glory" is not a concept that we immediately think of as intrinsically Christian. It is, as Bunting pointed out, however, more ubiquitous in Christian language than any other. To praise and glorify are energising activities. They mobilise; and when glory is recognised and celebrated in the bland, and even the abject, then Christianity's emphasis on glory becomes a counter-cultural phenomenon.

Bunting undoubtedly knows her way around religious thought better than many who are given radio time. Yet it is a problem when somebody who admits that he or she is not a practising Christian then attempts a discourse that necessarily requires engagement with cultural politics in a polemic way. The fall-back position "I don't believe this myself but . . ." robs the argument of some of its provocation and daring. It would have been more bracing to hear from somebody who believed in a concept of sin, atonement, and judgement in a religious framework, and sought to articulate them to a contemporary, secular listenership.

Film-makers deal in this sort of bet-hedging whenever they adapt "true stories". But, as we heard on Front Row (Radio 4, Good Friday), it appears to be the directors who claim authenticity and truth for their Gospel adaptations who are most successful. The Passion of the Christ, Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth, and, most recently, Son of God defy the professional critics and make mega-bucks from the faithful. There is something to be said for "telling it as it is".

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