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Dreams and visions

05 June 2015

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SO, WAS the message from God, or from t'other fellow? Joan of Arc: God's warrior (BBC2, Tuesday of last week) was superior to most historical documentaries, if only for the seriousness with which it presented the crucial context of religion, theology, and faith.

Helen Castor was a splendid writer and presenter, showing how the medieval mind sought to come to a judgement about the Maid of Orleans. It was to be expected that God, through his saints and angels, would vouchsave revelations to chosen individuals: the problem was that the Father of Lies played the same game. Were Joan's visions holy or diabolical?

The astonishing victories over the English and Burgundian alliance would suggest that God was with her; her shameless flouting of God-given norms on how women must behave and dress indicated that, on the contrary, she was in the grip of dark forces.

Castor's achievement was to make these concerns not primitive superstition, but matters that made perfect sense in the world-picture of the day. Indeed, the trial scrupulously sifted the evidence, sickeningly at odds with the ghastly sentence to which she was condemned.

Castor also pointed out the contemporary resonance: we would do well to take seriously today's claims of divine sanction for military and political action rather than resort to instinctive dismissal. If the 15th-century religious context was muddled, then so was the political picture. A simplistic view of a peaceful France thrown into turmoil by the perfidious English is untenable - the rival claims to the French crown were debatable, and, although he owed her his crown, Charles VII did not seek to save her from her fate. Recent defeats proved that, even if God had originally used her as his instrument, she clearly was not one any longer: she could be abandoned.

Another charismatic war leader thrown - less dramatically - to the lions was depicted in Churchill: When Britain said no (BBC2, Monday of last week). Contemporary newsreel, convincing dramatic reconstructions, and many historians told the story of Churchill's election defeat weeks after VE Day.

It was a persuasive work of revisionism, showing that adulation for the Prime Minister was far less universal than popular myth suggests, and that the electorate had sound reasons for judging that Clement Atlee's radical vision of a new Britain was far closer to what they had fought for than Churchill's romantic imperial nostalgia.

The problem with Apocalypse Code: The Bible prediction (Channel 5, Friday) was not that it took seriously the inanities of fundamentalist Rapturists, but that it found time for so much first-rate proper biblical scholarship as well, without choosing between the two.

The programme would have been a power for good had it only endorsed its theologians' explanations that the Apocalypse sought to interpret by the light of faith contemporary events - Nero's persecution, the Parthian threat - rather than set up a mystical code to be solved 2000 years later. But disaster-movie depictions of the so-called end time made for sexier TV.

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