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Radio review: Writing the Universe, The Ancients, and Drama on 3: Jubilee!

21 June 2024

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Writing the Universe (Radio 4, Monday of last week) explored how the cosmos came into being

Writing the Universe (Radio 4, Monday of last week) explored how the cosmos came into being

HOW would our cosmology look if we had not adopted Fred Hoyle’s derogatory coinage “the Big Bang”, and instead followed Fr Georges Lemaître’s name for that by which the universe was created: “the primeval atom”? It is one of those ironies of historiography that terminology devised to satirise ends up winning out in lexical popularity — hence, for instance, “Protestants”. Lemaître believed in a universe that came out of nothing; Hoyle preferred the steady state theory; and now — if we can conceive at all of the birth of the universe — it is as an epic explosion.

In Writing the Universe (Radio 4, Monday of last week), Robin Ince and accomplices explored the ways in which we have attempted to speak of the ineffable. Though by “we”, I really mean a narrow selection of scientists; the promise made by the introductory blurb “from Shakespeare to Milton” was unfulfilled, and no mention was made of biblical tradition.

All of which is forgivable when you feature communicators as engaging as Dr Carlo Rovelli and Professor Sean Carroll, physicists and philosophers both of whose interdisciplinary lectures one longs to attend — except that, once they had dispensed with Salvador Dali or Lewis Carroll and got on to hard equations, we would be irredeemably lost.

For an assessment of biblical origin stories, there is instead The Ancients (History Hit podcasts, released twice weekly), which, last week, included a discussion of Moses and Exodus. The format here is refreshingly simple: a competent presenter — the historian Tristan Hughes; an articulate and well-informed guest — on this occasion Dr Dylan Johnson of Cardiff University; and neither giggling nor banter. The hour-long episode contained an admirably clear exposition of the historical record, and disentanglement (such as it is possible) of the different textual traditions which comprise the biblical account.

The tendency with analyses of this kind is to reduce the evocative narrative which now survives to a patchwork of cuts and pastes, like a student essay that has passed through plagiarism software. But one bit of the story which stands out for its originality is that of the parting of the Red Sea. Dr Johnson himself was vague on the question of any precedent, and was unwilling to engage with materialist explanations such as seismic disturbance. That’s what makes it a miracle.

Those working in the field of choral music who are feeling embattled of late may take some pleasure in hearing the story — told in Drama on 3: Jubilee! (Radio 3, Sunday) — of the Fisk Jubilee Singers: a choir of former slaves who, far from being a drain on the resources of their university, saved it from financial ruin by taking their unique repertoire of spirituals on a nationwide tour. It is a heartwarming story, told with some forgivable indulgences; not least the moment when, having never apparently rehearsed the song together before, the choir spontaneously manages a near-perfect rendition of “Steal away”. Would that it were so simple.

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