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Radio review: Free Thinking, One to One, and Podcast Radio Hour

12 November 2021

BBC

Professor Francesca Stavrakopoulou promoted her new book God and Anatomy on Free Thinking (Radio 3, Thursday of last week),

Professor Francesca Stavrakopoulou promoted her new book God and Anatomy on Free Thinking (Radio 3, Thursday of last week),

ISAIAH 6.1. I and other ex-choristers know it in a bombastic musical setting by John Stainer. But would the great organist and composer have been drawn to the text had it been not the Lord’s “train” filling the Temple, but his “lower extremities”? Our own ecclesiastical culture, let alone the bashful Victorians, might colour even at this euphemism.

But that is just what Francesca Stavrakopoulou is about. In promoting her new book God and Anatomy on Free Thinking (Radio 3, Thursday of last week), Professor Stavrakopoulou seemed to relish the opportunity of describing God’s physical attributes and bodily functions, while disingenuously claiming that she did not “want to sound flippant”.

But there is nothing like flippancy of the “God had a Mum and Dad” variety to boost sales. In fact, most of this is about God’s back story: the God who preceded the God of the Old Testament; and, as my esteemed colleague Andrew Brown (in turn, quoting Rowan Williams’s review of the book) has pointed out (Press, 22 October), there is not as much to see here as we might be encouraged to believe — although the line about Ezekiel taking marijuana may be a new one.

Never mind. There was plenty else in this discussion — hosted by Matthew Sweet — to save the programme from mere literary log-rolling. Indeed, Mark Vernon was responsible for perhaps the most provocative contribution when he suggested that, but for a “blip called the Reformation”, Christians have always identified with the physicality of the Divinity.

One might wish to question his history — there are few texts more visceral than those of the Lutheran Pietists set by J. S. Bach — but Vernon’s enthusiasm for “embodied” spirituality lifted the conversation above the lower extremities.

The journey of faith is undoubtedly a physical as well as a spiritual challenge. In One to One (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week), we heard the Revd Paul Cowley (Interview, 11 September 2020) in conversation with the writer Malaika Kegode about the process of “reinvention” which took Mr Cowley from a chaotic personal life, via a Borstal and the army, into ministry.

He tells the story vividly, although to characterise the various stages in his life as brought on by anything as conscious and proactive as “reinvention” seems curious — as does, particularly, not hearing more of the galvanising effect of faith.

In the end, this was a peculiar encounter: not quite interview, and yet not the conversational exchange promised by the programme blurb. Mr Cowley found Jesus; Ms Kegode found poetry workshops. It’s not that the two are not equally valid: it’s just that they occupy different therapeutic realms.

For those not just overwhelmed by the climate crisis, but overwhelmed also by the amount of associated programming, Podcast Radio Hour (Radio 4 Extra, last Friday) provided an essential digest. As well as the familiar BBC output, the presenters, Laura Grimshaw and Greg Cochrane, trawled through the mountains of material so you don’t have to: podcasts from The Economist and Stop Climate Chaos Scotland; from Delicious Australia and Holiday Extras. The podcast world is crowded and clamorous. Whether it can itself be sustained, only time will tell.

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