Thoughts about Thought: three minutes of glory in the morning’s story

by
13 March 2020

Rhidian Brook looks back on 20 years in the Radio 4 God-slot

KT Bruce

Rhidian Brook at last month’s Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature

Rhidian Brook at last month’s Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature

YOU have got a day. To write 500 words. About something in the news. Through the prism of your faith. But don’t preach. You must not say anything that might offend. Make sure the words contain enough theology to satisfy the remit. Stay true to your faith. While remembering that the vast majority of people out there don’t share it. There is no “we” on Thought for the Day.

Don’t be platitudinous. Be original. Write as though addressing one person. But deliver them to six million. You’ll be live on Radio 4. In the middle of the most influential political news programme in the country. Read it in under three minutes. Ideally, two minutes and 45 seconds. Be ready for feedback. Expect criticism. Maybe even hostility. You’ll get paid £90 a pop. Don’t give up the day job.

 

IN 1999, I was asked to try a run of thoughts on Radio 4’s Thought for the Day. Back then, I knew it as “a spiritual talk”, given by a rabbi or a bishop, that went out just before 8 a.m. on the Today programme. I’d heard it referred to (affectionately and pejoratively) as the “godslot”, but I’d never considered what it was doing there, or who, other than professional religious leaders, got to do it. Its meditative tone seemed anomalous in such a punchy, political show.

I was not a devout Today listener, and wasn’t yet aware of Thought’s significant place in the nation’s consciousness. I accepted the invitation and, a few weeks later, a letter with guidelines (roughly as per above) came in the post. I had my trial run of three in April 2000 in the safer Saturday-morning slot, and, despite my earnest, dry-mouthed efforts, was later told I’d passed the audition. Twenty years and 200 or so broadcasts later, I find myself still on the rota and in the privileged, if increasingly threatened, position of doing Thought for the Day.

They’re a challenge to write. It requires a quick focus, a little guile, some poetry and — Lord, help! — some inspiration. I’ve written advertising copy, articles, short stories, novels, and film and TV scripts, but a Thought is suis generis. Part mini-meditation, part mini-essay, part something I can’t quite define. Each one requires a script, and every script has to be written, rewritten, and then checked by a producer at the BBC, the day before broadcast. What you write is subject to the contingency of events and the day you’ve been allotted. It is written to be read out loud (I try and choose words for sound as well as meaning and readability); sentences have to roll, syntax has to sooth but then snap; and paragraphs have to fit together. It’s a tough little construction.

If the form is tricky, the greater challenge is the content: how to see God in the quotidian, describe the ineffable in the unfolding news stories of the day, and make these connections for people half listening, half caring, or fully annoyed.

I know just how irritating Thought for the Day can be to some listeners (they write: “Dear Mr Brook, I wish you would stop ruining my mornings banging on about your Special Friend . . .”, or worse). There are the people who have a settled belief that there is no God, and that all religion is bogus. Then there are the religious for whom no one is ever religious enough. They also write, usually challenging my theology, or my use of scripture, or any failure to mention Jesus enough.

And then there is a third group — a bigger group, in my mind — of people who are not sure, a bit weary, a bit wary, and burdened with the troubles of the day ahead. This is, of course, most of us. It’s this last group that I keep in the forefront of mind when writing. I try to put myself in the shoes or slippers of a morning listener who has other things on their mind, and whose tolerance levels go off like a Geiger counter on hearing the word God.

 

A THOUGHT for the Day is an opportunity — a privileged space — to plant one helpful thought in the listener’s or reader’s mind. Something that gets them thinking. Something that might even lift that burden. It may well trigger ridicule, occasional outrage, or stone-cold indifference.

Yet, if anything, this makes you work at the words a little harder. Christianity is a faith built on a God proclaimed as The Word, and anyone who wants to proclaim this should choose and use words carefully. I like to include scripture whenever I can. This is partly a question of authority and a trust in that authority. I suppose you could say I am underwriting the Thought. But it also comes from a belief that scripture has a simultaneously fixed but fluid quality. It doesn’t change, but it has this power to change the way we see — or hear — things. An apposite quote still has the power to startle.

I did a quick scan of who I quote the most. After Jesus, it’s a close race between the prophetic books of the Old Testament prophets — Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ecclesiastes — and Psalms, which has more to say on the joys and struggles of life than most. The prophets might have felt their lives to be like “chaff in the wind”, but their words carry a weight that still speaks.

Many of my Thoughts are personal, first-person narratives. This, too, connects to the idea of authority — or being “the author”. If a Thought is rooted in my own experience it generally sounds less like an opinion, more like a witness. “You can’t serve what you ain’t cooking,” is a line I try and write by.

Looking back over 20 years’ worth of scripts, I see that certain subjects occur more frequently than others: homelessness, housing — and rugby. I have had to engage with big moments in the national life: the murder of Damilola Taylor, Hillsborough, Grenfell. And, although I have got older and uglier, maybe wiser, I can see a common thread running from my very first Thought to the latest.

I’d describe this as a desire to get beyond religion to faith: to see the Church in the world and get out of the building. Karl Barth described religion as humanity’s attempt to get to God, and revelation as God’s reaching out to humanity. And my epigram for Godbothering is taken from Marilynne Robinson’s Home: “Religion is human behaviour; Grace is the love of God.”

 

I HAVE sometimes wondered if it is worth doing Thought for the Day. It breaks up the working week. It doesn’t pay. Every “thank you” or “well done” can sometimes feel offset by a sneer or a “no thanks”. It is always under attack from someone. I often am asked to justify the existence of this daily anomaly, ergo my own contributions to it.

But, over time, I’ve come to see this anomalous quality as its vital characteristic. I tried to describe it in a Thought for the Day from 2015: “There’s two minutes forty to put some glory in the morning’s story, to give a different take, to kick against the pricks of the daily grind. To have a quiet word, amidst the cut and thrust of opinion and cross-question. To offer a reflection from Faith’s deep wisdoms, to speak against (and for) the absurd, to admit the world-sorrow but not let it have the final word. To say there is a God — or hint that there might be.

“I’ve not always believed in this God. When I came to faith — dramatically in my late twenties (another story) — I went from being someone who was lazily agnostic to someone who saw God as ultimate reality, a God intimately involved with humanity. I had a powerful desire to talk and write about this. I became one of those people I’d once mocked: one of those ‘God-botherers’; someone who bangs on about this God, even when uninvited.

“Of course it’s a derogatory term, but it contains another meaning. Namely, that there is a God worth bothering about; a God who is — whether we are bothered about him or not — bothered about us. That there is a God who is bothered is a piece of news worthy of a slot in any programme; worth saying to one person or six million.”
 

This is an edited extract from Godbothering: Thoughts, 2000-2020 by Rhidian Brook, published by SPCK at £9.99 (CT Bookshop £9).

Listen to Rhidian Brook in conversation with Bishop John Pritchard at the Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature, on the Church Times Podcast. You can also listen to the podcast on the Church Times app for iPhone and iPadApple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsSpotify, and most other podcast platforms.

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