Contrite sinner?

01 April 2016

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FINDING a new angle from which to recount the Passion of Jesus exercises TV programmers as much as preachers — or, to be more accurate, that .02 per cent of TV programmers who give a subject of such minority interest a moment’s attention. This year’s Good Friday offering on BBC1, In The Footsteps of Judas, focused on the villain of the piece.

The Revd Kate Bottley tried every approach as she sought to recover the historical kernel behind the story, consulting theologians, visiting sites in Jerusalem, amassing a selection of sources, images, and objects, somewhat unconvincingly laid out in an apparently redundant church where she could contemplate them at her leisure.

I felt that there was a flaw at the heart of the exercise: while trying to give proper attention to the insights of scholars into the nature of the Gospel narratives, fundamentally she treated the Evangelists as historical writers in our modern sense, taking Matthew’s chronology as if it were, well, gospel, rather than symbolic.

In her search for the traitor’s motive she did not give adequate attention to context; the quite different world-picture of Antiquity means that, for example, psychological coherence matters less than the meaning of the action: the character responsible for the furtherance of a plot is frequently a hapless victim, singled out for no particular reason.

But, towards the end, the real inquiry became clear: could the God of love whom she proclaims condemn to eternity the instrument of the means of our salvation? Mrs Bottley’s refusal to contemplate such vindictiveness sought glimpses of another resolution: a moving quest for a response to Judas’s contrition, agony, and suicide, resolved by Laurence Whistler’s marvellous glass etching of the hanged Judas, held in the light of God’s forgiveness (News, 2 May 2014).

A quite different approach was, in my opinion, triumphantly vindicated in The Passion (BBC4, Easter Day). This could not be more formally esoteric: an acted-out reduction of Bach’s St Matthew Passion, performed by a mash-up of Harry Christopher’s The Sixteen and Streetwise Theatre’s cast of homeless amateurs, many living with mental and emotional difficulties.

And yet this promenade production in Campfield Market, Manchester, could not be more compelling: the stylisation of Bach’s masterpiece paradoxically accessible to all, and the music gaining extra stature from its manner of performance: solo singers and instrumentalists moved among the audience. The Streetwise performers took it in turns to play the central roles, and, at the climax, all those who had played Jesus took up a cross. This was Jesus as Everyman — hardly the complete theological truth, but wonderful in what it did proclaim.

Robert Beckford’s The Battle for Christianity (BBC1, Holy Tuesday) was an essentially optimistic account of new directions in ministry in contemporary Britain. All the church leaders interviewed rejected the over-dramatic title, acknowledging, rather, the legitimacy of many different approaches. The main omission was the great truth that challenging theology allied to radical social engagement is not expressed solely through over-amplified worship bands and banal ditties: traditional Christian liturgy and music provided far richer resources.

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