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Two strands united

27 June 2014


HAVE you noticed that there seems to be just now an unaccountable number of TV programmes focusing on the largest country in South America? The theologian Dr Robert Beckford took us on a journey unfamiliar to many in his Seven Wonders of Brazil (BBC2, Friday); for he was focusing on that nation's diverse and vibrant religious life.

He was making the point that religion is not an added bit of colour, a take-it-or-leave-it hobby: it is central to people's lives, and if you do not understand and respect that, then you cannot understand or engage with the country itself.

Brazil is, of course, a particularly strong demonstration of this truth, and Dr Beckford relished the interrelatedness of faith and communal life: the heritage of Portuguese Catholicism; the African religions of the slaves; and now Pentecostalism, the quasi-religion of carnival.

In his account, the important thing was the level of intermarriage and creative dialogue between these differing systems of faith, and how people live happily combining strands of two or more of these powerful expressions.

No doubt another film could be made about the competition between them; but his enthusiasm was compelling, and we were carried along with Brazilian energy to conclude that the towering figure of Christ the Redeemer, arms outstretched above Rio in blessing, is no bad symbol of the underlying syncretistic unity manifested in this extraordinary nation.

Such a programme made about Britain would, of course, have to include the subject of The Battle for Stonehenge (BBC2, Saturday). This marked the opening of the new visitor centre, and the improved setting finally achieved by the closing of one of the roads that severs the circle from its surrounding sacral landscape.

I watched wearing two hats: as a minister keen to take all religion seriously; and as the veteran of some 40 archaeological excavations. On both of these fronts, it failed dismally. The presenter, Alastair Sooke, seemed unable to discern whose relationship with the monument should be taken seriously, and whose should be taken with several barrels of salt.

He spent too much time on the self-styled Druids, an invention of 19th-century Romanticism. He also told us that no one knew the original purpose of Stonehenge, which, if perhaps strictly true, does not preclude our knowing what it was not used for - namely, anything whatsoever to do with the real Druids, who came far later.

He seemed unwilling to engage with English Heritage's real problem, which is how to maintain one of the world's greatest sites in the face of the millions who visit it.

There was more delusion in The Girl Who Talked to Dolphins (BBC4, Tuesday of last week).I n a tale of 1970s New Age flakiness, the neuroscientist John Lilly encouraged his research associate, Margaret Howe, to set up house with a dolphin called Peter, convinced that she could teach him to talk.

The distinction between mimicking sounds and understanding what they meant seems to have passed them by. It was a tragic story: Lilly's attention led to Peter's early death.

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