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Radio review: The Religious Studies Project Podcast and Music Matters

24 April 2020

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DETERMINED to distance himself from Covid-infected broadcasting, your reviewer has been venturing into the badlands of religious pod­casting.

Even under normal circum­stances, I would have been glad to find The Religious Studies Project Podcast (RSPP) (religiousstudiesproject.com), from the Uni­versity of Edinburgh, and, in last week’s fascinating discussion of near-death ex­­peri­ences, it was hosted by Christopher Cotter.

This is a show that pulls no in­tel­lectual punches, and so structured is the RSPP that it is accompanied on the website by a conscientious tran­scription of the discussion, just in case the partici­pants think that they might not need declaim in full, syn­tactical sentences.

Cotter’s guest in last week’s epi­sode was Professor Jens Schlieter, from the Institute for the Science of Religion, at Bern, whose study of the near-death phenomenon takes a socio-historical approach. Thus it is not what is going on in the neural networks which bestows meaning on such experiences, but the cultural and biographical context for each individual subject. Crucially, the near-death experience is not — Pro­fessor Schlieter says — a uni­versal one; and, as an indication of this, he contrasts the typical Euro­pean account, in which the subject leaves the body and looks down on it, with that of Tibetan Buddhists, whose accounts focus on mourning by­­standers. In this, he argues, we might observe a divergent attitude towards the individual and collective soul.

The first report in European history of near-death comes from the late 18th century, when Admiral Sir Francis Beaufort, of the British Navy, narrowly escaped drowning in Portsmouth Harbour. But, if we are to follow Professor Schlieter’s line, it should come as no surprise that familiar narrative tropes start to emerge from the 1970s onwards, when academics began to investigate the phenomenon with more conviction. Nor is it a surprise that reports should proliferate in so­ci­eties where religious faith and prac­tice was receding in the memory, so that sensations of psychic dislocation might represent some kind of meta­physical authenticity.

There are few jobs that entail more sustained social isolation than that of the church organist. And so it is peculiarly cruel that the Church of England’s self-imposed restrictions should deprive our organists of their solitary pursuit. If you are Professor John Butt, you might, as he ex­­plained in Music Matters (Radio 3, Easter Monday), link your do­­mestic organ console to the simul­ated sound of any organ you wish. But it is not a luxury afforded to everyone.

This celebration of the organ at Easter took us from Bach’s Leipzig to the Coventry Cathedral of today, and, by reminding us of the colour with which at Easter the organ trad­itionally illuminates the Church after 40 days of silence, gave us some sense of what is in store once our organists are allowed to return.

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