IS RELIGION a good or a bad thing? Channelling the Church of England’s tradition of fearless intellectual rigour, I’d say: “It all depends.” Last week’s, two TV documentaries made a strong case, in admittedly specific instances, for the most negative conclusion. Rebekah Vardy: Jehovah’s Witnesses and Me (Channel 4, Tuesday of last week) recounted a childhood spent in fear and guilt, which, the media personality says, still casts a dark shadow over her.
Her parents’ church — her grandfather was an elder — induced the strongest fear of literal hellfire in anyone who deviated from its stern rules. “You had to keep Jehovah happy”: a rather heavy burden to place on anyone. Surely, as a loving parent, it’s his job to keep us happy? But enough of my soppy liberalism.
On her telling, this was a church of judgement, ruled by self-appointed male elders who were swift to condemn. Holding apparently unquestionable powers (surely the envy of all bishops and archdeacons), they personally interrogated all backsliders and pronounced judgement — especially through “disfellowshipping”. This led to “shunning”: the condemned still had to attend worship, but were “shunned” — that is, cut off from all communication with other church members. In a group that had already separated itself rigorously from wider society, this was a bitter condemnation.
Sexual sins were particularly condemned. Mrs Vardy’s report of the abuse that she suffered from the age of 12, because it lacked (how could it not?) the essential two or three eyewitnesses, was not believed; instead, she was judged guilty. Reporting to the police was forbidden. Today’s Jehovah’s Witnesses firmly reject all these accusations — but Mrs Vardy found enough ex-JWs who had similar stories to build a damning case.
Storyville: In the name of the father (BBC4, Tuesday of last week) was an even more sensational exposé. Rabbi Schick, or Mohorosh, was the charismatic leader of Breslov Hasidic Jews, based in Brooklyn. He set up a community in Yavniel, Israel, which he intended to be a beacon of righteousness for “repentant” Jews. He controlled everything; the adherents faxed him their thoughts and questions all day and night, overwhelmed to be in contact with such holiness, a direct link to God — “You don’t have to think: I’ll tell you what to do.”
But, after his death, his huge fortune is being fought over bitterly by his son and the community’s elders, and shattering revelations have emerged, including widespread accusations of child sexual abuse. Once again, any girl who reported rape was herself judged guilty, a seductress. The only solution was enforced under-age marriage, seemingly ignored by Israeli authorities. God save us from charismatic leaders.
Sex and religion jostle in ITV’s four-part realisation of Henry Fielding’s masterpiece Tom Jones (Thursdays, from 4 May). The necessary spark glows, alas! rather feebly — but we see clearly enough how, despite his sexual incontinence, Tom’s goodness and generosity are more genuinely Christian than the pious posturing of his mean and calculating nemesis, Mr Blifil. Grace conquers law.