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Radio review: Free Thinking: Religion and ordinary lives, The Passion in Plants, and Slow Radio

17 April 2020


Free Thinking: Religion and ordinary lives (Radio 3, Holy Tuesday) examined the routine ways in which faith is expressed

Free Thinking: Religion and ordinary lives (Radio 3, Holy Tuesday) examined the routine ways in which faith is expressed

“WHO sweeps a room as for Thy laws, Makes that and th’action fine.” George Herbert’s pithy couplet, a paean to the religion of the ordinary, might have served as a motto for the story told by Dr Naomi Pullin in Free Thinking: Religion and ordinary lives (Radio 3, Holy Tuesday). Two Quaker women, en route for Alexandria, are captured and impris­oned as heretics on the island of Malta. After four years of incarcera­tion, the doors of their cell are finally opened for their release, and they are discovered contentedly knitting.

The quiet, heroic piety of women such as these is becoming of increas­ing interest to social historians, who, we are told, have typically over­looked religious practice. Simply stated, ordinary faith is expressed in ways that are routine, and whose virtue is in their unchanging ritual.

Yet historians, as Professor Han­nah Barker here admitted, like to say that whatever period they are study­ing is one of profound change. For her, as a historian of the post-Enlighten­­­ment, there is the added challenge of convincing us that faith did not dis­appear from ordinary people’s lives as soon as Voltaire put quill to paper. Her research includes study­ing 19th-century family Bibles that contain children’s scribbles and doodles; and evidence of how famil­iar an artefact the Good Book was in the households of the Industrial Rev­o­lu­­tion.

Last week, The Passion in Plants (Radio 4, weekdays) provided an ex­­cellent companion piece to this dis­­cussion. In the company of the writer Bob Gilbert, and a Franciscan friar, Brother Samuel, the Holy Week story was revealed through the folklore and symbolism of nature: the pussy willow traditionally used to replace the palm, the bitter tansy herb, hawthorn, and cuckoo-pint. As rich and densely illustrated as a medieval herbarium, this series gave us social history and science, the­ology and poetry.

Ordinary lives of a special kind were the focus of last week’s Slow Radio (Radio 3, weekdays; originally broadcast in 2017). This was a timely repeat: no doubt we are being en­­­cour­aged to learn from the monks of Belmont, Downside, and Plus­carden abbeys how to deal with life lived at a radically different pace. The sound­­scape created here of changing acoustics, occa­sion­­ally punctuated with human voices, was of virtuosic quality, com­­promised only by the occasional utterance that fell on the wrong side of the line between pro­fundity and banality.

If, as a remedy for our disordered times, neither celebration of the or­­­di­­­­nary nor reduction of the heart rate is effective, then radio also offers a portal into a past so immersive that it might be regarded as a parallel universe. Saturday mornings on Radio 4 Extra are currently full of comedy from the 1950s, and Radio 5 Live Sports Extra last week presented the entire commen­tary of the third Ashes Test from last year: the one in which Ben Stokes snatched a victory from certain defeat. A story of death and resurrection if ever you saw one.

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