I FREQUENTLY have cause to give thanks for the excellent English Lit. teaching I received at school; but rarely more so than during last week’s Radio 4 Drama: Paradise Lost (Saturday and Sunday), when, just as the heroic metaphors threatened to overwhelm me, memory of Mr Deacon’s attritional, line-by-line commentary provided the essential lifeline. This was not a Paradise Lost for beginners. The treatment by Michael Symmons Roberts was something else: I’m not sure what, but I suspect that it has “meta” in front of it.
The framing device here was provided by the blind John Milton and his spouse and amanuensis Elizabeth (played by Ian McKellen and Frances Barber). It offered the adapter the possibility of skipping over large chunks of the source material by means of a quick, conversational précis. Needless to say, it is the bits with Satan that steal the show — but maybe that is also because we did only the first two books at school.
I have already given the Lent Talk (Radio 4, Wednesdays) strand a plug this season (Media, 2 March), but cannot pass over Dr Katie Edwards’s extraordinary and powerful contribution last week. Why, she asks, are we required to admire Jesus’s silence in the face of questioning by the authorities? It was the account in St Matthew’s Gospel that she was brought up on; and yet the Jesus of St John’s Gospel is more admirable: provocative and argumentative.
Dr Edwards’s standpoint is that of a girl brought up in South Yorkshire at a time when teenage girls such as her were routinely abused, and their complaints were ignored. Silence became the default response when her classmates were “dating” adult men, when fondling and groping girls was unexceptional, and when a party with older men might result in multiple rape. Silent suffering was merely an indication of a complacent system and a defeated generation.
Thinking Allowed (Radio 4, Wednesday of last week) similarly moved out of its secular sociological comfort zone with a programme on sacrifice. There is no escaping the sacred here — the clue is in the word — but, predictably, we began at the wrong end of the telescope by looking in detail at the suicide bombings.
As Professor Chetan Bhatt, of the LSE, reminded us, the language of sacrifice which these “martyrs” invoke is entirely narcissistic, motivated by rewards in paradise and ignoring the suffering of victims. The problem with the language of sacrifice, he told us, was that it mixed up the world of the living with that of the afterlife.
Well, isn’t that the point? It took Terry Eagleton, who has got a new book out on the subject, to make some meaningful connection between spiritual virtue and self-denial. “God so loved the world. . .”: God, and his followers who give up their lives, are giving up something that they love, not something that they despise. Life is precious, and the martyr who abandons it must live that death until the final moment, just as our Lord did. Thus is achieved the ultimate purpose of sacrifice: the transformation of weakness to power.