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Speech to Council for Christians and Jews

SINGING THE LORD’S SONG IN A STRANGE LAND

Key note address to the Council for Christian and Jews 20th October 2009

I am speaking to you today as a religious and media consultant for the first
time in my career after twenty three years with the BBC

– most recently as head of religious broadcasting.

But throughout my time with the corporation I have worked within the religion genre on radios one, two three and four

as well as in TV documentaries, most notably perhaps Son of God, Around the World ion 80 Faiths and Extreme Pilgrim

and a long stint as Series Producer of Songs of praise.

All this has placed me in a unique position to observe and reflect the changing face of religious life in Britain and to comment on where we are today.

My approach to religious broadcasting has always been not only thoroughly ecumenical but also thoroughly interfaith.

For example, I established faith in the world week on Radio Two and have greatly enjoyed being responsible for representing the interests of the various religious communities,

working with colleagues of all faiths and none and creating many programmes covering every creed.

I have passionately defended the role of religious broadcasting – perhaps ultimately too hard,

and am pleased that one of my first consultancy roles is to write a report for the BBC’s Director General on the way the BBC handles religion and to make recommendations for the future.

I want to return to that at the end of my talk.

So I feel I can speak to you tonight with a degree of authority and a certain amount of licence to pass judgement on what I have seen and what I see for the future.

**First I want to talk about the paradox around us – the confused religious picture in which we are living.

On the one hand the noisy secular voice trying and failing to drown out the rich and diverse music of the nations religious life and on the other the new visibility of religion ion the public sphere.

**I will then offer my explanation for how this situation has come about and how the media are to blame but so are we

**Then to offer a pathway for us to respond to the challenges of secular Britain

**And finally to talk about what this could mean for the BBC and its religious broadcasting

**So to my first observation: that there are curious things going on out there in the religious fabric of the nation.

And a knotty paradox that I want to try and unscramble.

I don’t know about you, I am sometimes overwhelmed with a kind of deep existential sadness that tells me I am an alien in my own land.

The familiar comforts of shared values and community cohesion centred on respected belief systems has gradually been destroyed. It is now replaced with — ghastly materialism,
– the grotesque, vacuous celebrity culture,
– the revolting values of reality TV,
– the sickness of advertising,
– the slickly produced lies that tell you, for example that a car can create real joy,
– the oppressive emphasis on money and possessions,
– the hypocrisy of government,
-the apparently unchanging global inequality
-and man’s (and I use the word advisedly) failure to understand that invading other people’s countries is not going to bring peace.

It feels as if we are losing the war under a secular barrage – all around us the secular voice seems to be winning through as faith is mocked and portrayed as lunacy –

**and for me, an iconic moment was when Ricky Gervais perhaps our most popular comic said on desert island discs that the Bible which is automatically given to the castaway, would be useful only as toilet paper.

We have lost track of some crucial parts of our heritage.

A university theology department was recently asked to provide a prima paper for English undergraduates who arrived at the University unable to understand the numerous Biblical and theological references in Milton and Shakespeare.

It is as though the connective tissue of our memories has disappeared. We have become a nation of ‘memorials without memories’ as the poet Geoffrey Hill puts it.

and yet, curiously, paradoxically, despite the secular mood music,

**all around us is evidence of the fact that the great tide of secularism simply hasn’t swept aside religion in the way that was so confidently predicted after the 2nd World War.

Europe was dominated by secularist ideas then and it seemed inevitable that religion would be swept aside by the great gods of science and enlightenment.

But that isn’t what happened and there is now an increasing interest in religion across the world.

The Christian church has grown rapidly in Africa and Asia. The collapse of communism has enabled evangelical messages to spread more freely

and the obvious rise of Islam as a powerful force have all contributed to this new upturn in religions prominence.

In some ways the tide seems to be turning. The Sea of Faith in Arnold’s Dover Beach poem may no longer be withdrawing.

**Peter Berger the sociologist wrote in 1968 “by the 21st century religious believers are likely to be found in small sects huddled together to resist a worldwide secular culture”.

**In 1996 he wrote “the world today is as furiously religious as it ever was” And that was 5 years before 9/11 raised the stakes to their highest level in a generation.

But how does this phenomnon express itself in this paradoxical situation?

** “This phenomenon of the new visibility of religion in civil society represents one of the most significant social and intellectual paradigm shifts of our day.” Prof Graham Ward

Prof Graham Ward at Manchester University speaks about how Religion has a renewed public profile in the world today.

But this is not about a return to public power of the former religious institutions and organisations.

It is not about an increasing number of bums on seats in churches, synagogues, mosques or temples.
Neither is the interest in religion necessarily related to faith in a ‘God’.

The interest is more diffuse and manifesting itself in new ‘liquid networks’ as professor Ward describes them – like on-line discussion groups and Christian house churches and cultural phenomena like the new popularity for meditation, retreats and pilgrimages.

**What is being witnessed, he goes on, is ‘a new visibility of religion in the public sphere’.

——

**It could be argued that we have become a nation of believers not belongers. The human spirit does not die off because the established religion is in decline.

It will feed on the raw material of spiritual and religious experience wherever it can be found and there is plenty of yummy material out there to titillate the palate of the spiritual seeker.

The danger as GK Chesterton points out is that when people stop believing in God they don’t believe in nothing they believe in anything

If the religious muscles of secular woman and man are not being exercised by traditional religions they will find other places to play.

We cannot survive without drama, pageant and fantasy, the starving imagination is remarkably catholic in its tastes and will find in the new media world a plethora of new religious expression to choose from.

This ‘new visibility’ is found throughout our culture; fashion branding, ad campaigns, architecture and the latest movies.

I am surprised that just outside the BBC in Manchester you can walk past a café called ‘The Eighth Day’, a wine bar called ‘The Font’ with its advertising slogan ‘come and be baptised’ and a night club called ‘The Paradise Factory’ filled with old church furnishings.

If we describe the secular age as disenchanting society then what we are seeing around us today is the re-enchantment of that world. A re-sacrilisation is going on –

**look at Dr Who, Harry Potter, the revival of the Narnia stories. As Professor Ward puts it: “The Internet, the world of interactive games, and cinematic special effects are just three of the means whereby contemporary culture is flooded with angels and demons, wizards and witches, ghosts and zombies, levitating swordsmen and predatory vampires.

The world is becoming remythologised again, as the supernatural takes up its home in realms once considered normal and mundane.”

So despite the secular mood music that weighs me down it seems that the rumour that God is dead has been somewhat exaggerated!

Curiously the march of the militant atheists is only helping this new visibility.

**Dawkins and his ilk insist that religion is only an evolutionary accident, an unfortunate by-product of human faculties which were once useful to us in our upward rise from the primeval swamp but now produce dangerous delusions.

Although their intention is to damage the structures of religious belief, they are producing the opposite effect.

They ridicule the weak and off putting parts of religion and with their books, blogs and bendy busses have put the key issue of God high on the public agenda.

They have successfully drawn attention to the questions at the very heart of faith at a time when too much of the modern church is focussed on subtle interpretations of scripture and what consenting adults do behind closed doors.

The recent Darwin debate has even helped bring different religions together as letter to the Telegraph showed earlier this year; signed by Bishops, an orthodox Jew, a spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain –

the letter encouraged believers to embrace evolution and asked contemporary Darwinists who seem intent on using Darwin’s theory as a vehicle for promoting an anti-theistic agenda – to desist from doing so.

**There is quite a bit of statistical evidence that shows the religion brand is actually in an upward spiral – church attendance is up in some areas, religion and spirituality are the fastest growing areas for books sales.

And apparently Global atheism is in decline

But it is not always a positive thing

The equalities and human rights commission has just published research by Mori that shows that faith and belief are a more significant source of tension in Britain than race

**So here is the paradox – all this religious stuff going on and yet going on in a context of rampant secularism. How can we explain this?

Firstly I think the media is a major reason for this – the legacy of the predicted secularisation persists in the children of the sixties enlightenment, authors, journalists, scientists, commentators who fertilise the intellectual soil we inhabit and create this imbalance.

Their attitudes are simply out of sync with the mood of the general population. And their voice of course disproportionally heard because of the all the media platforms they have access to.

A YouGov poll showed that asked the question “Would you consider yourself to be religious?” 71% of general public said yes but only 21% of people working in the TV industry said yes. I fear the TV and perhaps the media in general may be making decisions on behalf of an audience who thinks very differently.

And because they don’t ‘get’ religion this makes the prevailing tendency in the media to treat religion only as a problem – something to be covered when it makes the news.

It would be like only covering football from the point of view of football hooliganism – ie completely missing the whole point about why people feel so passionate about it.

Religious people are a at best a curiosity or at worst a dangerous threat that needs to be exposed.

Another explanation for this paradox is that the fractured and fragmented blossoming of religious practice is inextricably linked with the noisy, alienating, secularist voice.

The re-emergence of religion is the inevitable consequence of alienation.

When the atmosphere has so radically moved away from a place where traditional religion was at the centre of everything,

people who don’t have secure and deep foundations in a faith tradition scrabble around looking for expressions they can latch on to, formulas that will work amidst the muddle of messages.

The pot pourri of religious observance and spiritual longing is the result of the traditional religions losing their bottle, getting distracted by the minutiae and losing sight of the main prize.

As the establishment and the media exile the faith communities we become aliens in our own land.

And people are driven to rediscover faith in many and diverse ways. Re-enchantment and exile are part of a rhythm with restoration and rebuilding

**So how do we as people of the great faiths live with this – what should be our game plan?

Firstly we need to be more robust and not shrink away from the challenge

I was listening to Alistair McGrath at Greenbelt this year.

Dr McGrath is one of Dawkins greatest enemies mainly because he irrefutably shows Dawkins to be a biologist out of his depth as an amateur theologian.

Along with a comprehensive destruction of Dawkins thesis he encouraged all people of faith to stand up and be counted.

We bearers of scripture must have confidence to speak of our faith and not allow the debate to be reduced to the level of the ridiculous that the atheists want.

They want to portray religion as daft and feed, parasite like, off the stupid fringes of faith. They need religion to be ludicrous in order to survive.

But we hold an intellectually sound position and hold to faiths that have been loved and venerated through generations, have stood the test of time,

have come through terrible persecution and come out the other side valid and vibrant and ready to fight on.

We must not be cowed by the lightweight, flimsy logic of the atheist position and should find every opportunity to declare our faith from the rooftops.

**Secondly we need to follow the teachings in our shared scripture

There is also biblical imperative for us to follow at this time. Do you, like me, feel that you are singing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

Have you ever felt that you have been weeping as you remembered the glory days of old?

We have not moved to Babylon but Babylon has moved in around us. We are now a people in exile, in our own land. How do we deal with this? The Bible tells us…
We need to notice the bone aching sadness of this exile. Not shy away from recognizing the pain we feel.
“By the rivers of Babylon I sat down and wept, how shall I sing the lords song in a foreign land?” we also perhaps need to understand our exile in terms of ‘repentance’ and God’s doing.
God has allowed our exile, not in hatred, but perhaps in anger at our failure to speak out and hold firm.
We have lost the plot….speaking with shame of my own tradition, a recent survey in the states discovered that the biggest demographic supporting the torture as part of US foreign policy were evangelical Christians.
When we have allowed our faith to be so sorely distorted maybe we deserve to be in exile.
However God still ‘knows what he has in store for us and it is for our good and not our evil’.
The prophets speak to the exile people and those people are a people of promise and therefore hope. In a sense we know the certainty of the future – and it is dreadful, ‘full of dread’.
The future is about economic, social, ecological and moral disaster. Promise however opens up the future from the tram lines of certainty to the freeway of new possibility.
Prophesy offers a way out, ‘turn to the Lord’ and there will be restoration. By understanding our exile in terms of God’s will we can understand our future in terms of God’s promise and forgiveness.
The ‘all have sinned’ applies to the nation, and the ‘full of mercy’ also applies to the whole nation. A people who know they are in exile and understand their exile in terms of God’s will are repentant people, filled with hope and profoundly aware of God’s gracefulness and love.
This hope and gratitude underline our most profound challenge and that is a patient waiting and engagement in the foreign land.

Restoration and exile are God’s to give, for God gives and takes away, ‘blessed be the name of the Lord’.

In the meantime, though we are profoundly sad and tempted to destructive anger against those who have put us into exile, we are actually invited to settle in and ‘seek the prosperity of those among whom we dwell’.

Here we are to love those who have positioned us as their enemy.

So we must be robust in our stance with secular Britain, but also reach out and love it – but along the way we must also be careful not to lose our identity.

We must not compromise our faith positions and pretend that we are all much the same.

The faith zone was one of the many things wrong with the Millennium Dome if you went to t visit it.

It tried to make out that all religions can be lumped together and treated like some sort of doughy mass of homogenaity

We can love one another and respect one another but still hold on to our identity and uniqueness.

**So this is my backdrop for my paper for the director general – how should the BBC reflect all this confusion and diversity in its religious broadcasting. What shall I say to him?

To start with it might help to redefine what we mean by religion.

‘religion’ is not a cool word. It tends to summon up memories of dull sermons and dusty liturgies.

It consistently comes last in all the lists of subjects in which people are supposed to be interested – according to Ofcom. Which is not surprising, if you ask people are you interested in religion it is a bit like asking them if they like being bored to death.

It all comes down to what we mean by religion – perhaps if we can define that then we can give a much clearer strategy – and I believe prove that people do want to watch, listen to and consume powerful, informative and entertaining religious communication.

Some say we should change the word ‘religion’ to something that is a bit less off putting and more palatable. Like “spirituality”, or “vague faith”.

It’s tempting but wrong. We need to hold on tightly to religion as a word and a concept. It is a fine word, derived from ligio as in ligament – the thing that joins or re-joins things together, it is a strong word with huge depth and meaning.

Changing the word religion to belief would be like renaming History – “Legend”, or News and Current Affairs – “Hearsay and Rumour”.

Mixing up the ideas behind the great faiths with the confused world of individual spiritualities is hazardous.

You can water something down until it stops tasting of anything, You can dilute a subject to the point where it loses its focus and its purpose and you can make it out that anything from skateboarding to hang-gliding is the same as religiousness.

The beauty of the word “religion” is that it is big enough to then cover all the individualistic beliefs, superstitions and vague spiritual longings that are undoubtedly out there.

So having said what it isn’t how about this for a new definition of what it is?

**Religion is the very substance of life – why are we here at all? what is life for?

It is the part of the human heart that sees what is and asks, ‘is there not more than this?’

It is the part of the scientific mind that explains the how and then says, ‘why so?’

**Religion is the wonder at the ‘unutterable beauty’ of all that is.

Religion inquires in suffering, ‘how can I cope’? Calls out in confusion, ‘what do I do?’ Shouts out in joy what cannot be said.

It’s about forgiveness, meaning, enduring the unendurable, starting again, its visceral, passionate and dangerous,

**its celebration, its stories of transformation, its violent and ….its why the world’s the way it is.

When we engage with Religion, understand it, celebrate it, enjoy it and question it, we get as close as we will ever do to the profoundest mysteries of what makes us human, and what makes humanity so extraordinary.

And to borrow a phrase from Paul Tillich, It’s the ground of our being and our ultimate concern.

Now if the next Ofcom research asks people if they are interested in all that – of course the answer will be yes – it might even interest the more secular parts of the media.

And in that broader definition rooted in the great faiths it transforms from being a duty broadcast to a consumer need, from a public service box ticking exercise to an audience grabbing proposition.

So although I haven’t actually started writing my report for the DG I have already started forming my conclusions as to how to advise the corporation in how it handles religious broadcasting

I propose seven imperatives:

• To show the religious experience
religion in action. We need to see the ‘game’ as it were. People aren’t interested in religion because it is boring, mindless and sterile – they are interested in religion because it is vibrant, engaging and exciting.

So let’s see the pageant and practise of religion in all its colour and excitement – feel it, smell it, touch it.

• To ask the big questions – and find pointers to the big answers.
People come to religion for the big
answers. Religious broadcasting needs to paint the big picture and provide space to discuss complex ideas, existential conundrums, the theodicy debate. People want more than science.

• To respond to the news agenda…
There needs to be a fleet of foot, dextrous way of commissioning religious content that can respond to national and world events.

• To interrogate and debate…
Religions shouldn’t be allowed to get away with rubbish. There needs to be
the ability the dig deeper and broader to interrogate belief structures and religious experiences.

• To understand the history…
How did we get here? Why are we in this situation? Underpin the literacy of the UK population – we need to rebuild shared experience and shared history. Add to the spiritual and ethical grammar of the nation which they can then use with confidence

• To provide space for ethical and moral discussion …
Ethics a hugely important issue deeply neglected in recent times

I believe firmly that there has never been a more important time for the media to enhance its religious and ethical output. And to better reflect the mosaic in the religious world that surrounds us.

But also it must be a guide to the audience, take it by the hand a show the full range of possibilities in all their glory and excitement and allow the well informed consumer to chose their own path.

2 comments

  1. Good stuff – passionate and thoughtful, compelling and yet allowing room for engagement. How was it received?


  2. Thank you Michael — just adding you into the definitions of religion and spirituality section of the thesis.



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