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
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
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".