Radio as a religion?

03 November 2017

BBC/Charlie Clift

Culturally sensitive: Neil MacGregor, a former director of the British Museum, explores religious practices in Living with the Gods (R4, weekdays)

Culturally sensitive: Neil MacGregor, a former director of the British Museum, explores religious practices in Living with the Gods (R4, weekdays)

THERE was a time when the rou­tines of daily life were determined by religious ritual and the sound of church bells. Now, it is the pips, the shipping forecast, and the gruff tones of John Humphrys; and on Saturday morn­ing the 60th anni­versary of matins, aka Today, was celebrated. The programme chose to mark the big day by performing in front of a live audience, which, for those of us listening at home, made for an uncomfortable combination of intimacy and theatre.

It will have been frustrating to all those who put it together with such loving care that the whole thing was upstaged by Michael Gove’s much-publicised remark about Harvey Wein­­stein. It was an inappropriate project from the outset. The awk­ward transitions from light-hearted to serious were so much harder to negotiate with the laughter of an audience still reverberating around the glorious Wigmore Hall acoustic; there was a series of unconvincing impersona­tions to accompany the sports report; and the self-congratulatory interview between Mr Humph­rys and Lord Kinnock and Mr Gove. Nothing that Bishop James Jones could do — even with his 33 years’ experience as a Thought for the Day contributor — could poop the party, and this listener switched off with a Humphrys-style harrumph.

In as much as radio shapes our practices and binds us as a com­munity, it might be deemed worthy of qualification as a religion — at least using the broad, anthropological criteria that Neil MacGregor is adopting for his new series, Living with the Gods (Radio 4, weekdays). As in previous series, MacGregor is collaborating with the British Mu­­seum, of which he was once director, though, in this first week of programmes, the objects appeared sec­ondary to the symbolic phenomena they repre­sented: fire, water, and light.

We accompanied him to the Newgrange cave in Ireland, pierced by the sun at the winter solstice; and to the banks of the Ganges, to hear the tale of the river goddess whose name it bears. These and other in­­stances underpin his central thesis, that religion is what you do as much as what you believe. In the case of the Ice Age community, it is what got you through the long, hard winters.


The stars of these shows are the objects rather than the high-level narrative abstracted from them. The Ice Age human statue with lion’s head, carved from a mammoth tusk, is testament to early human ima­gina­­tion and patience (an estimated 400 hours of work), just as its reconstruc­tion from about 200 fragments bears witness to the skill and tenacity of modern archae­ologists.

At the other end of the time-span, had we been spared MacGregor’s overly conscien­tious cultural sensit­ivities, we might have been touched by the image of William Ward, baptising a native Brahmin in the Ganges. It may be that religion is about what people do, and force other people to do; but there is no doubt from looking at Ward, in full clerical garb and up to his waist in water, that it is also about what people believe.


‘Of gods and men’ - Neil MacGregor’s series Living with the Gods is running on Radio 4; the companion exhibition opened at the British Museum yesterday. He talks to Sam Wells

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