James Cary's website has moved to a new home. Apologies. I know you'd only just sat down and taken a few sips of your tea, but there it is.
Come on over to jamescary.co.uk and I'll see you there.
If you get there before me, the key is under the pot plant to the right of the back door.
Let us be clear about this: Giving up chocolate for Lent isn’t a thing.
I can’t claim to understand Lent. I’m a Calvinist so I live like it’s Lent all year round. It’s taken me years to convince myself that I’m allowed a large glass of orange juice and that it’s not the luxury item (like it was in the 1980s when it was considered to be a starter in a three course meal). So I may not be confident on the provenance of Lent. But I do know this. Whatever it’s about, it’s not about giving up chocolate for forty days.
Here’s what I do know: Lent traditionally begins on Ash Wednesday, the day after the Sacred Feast of the Pancakes, and ends on Maundy Thursday (a.k.a. The Day of Worrying about What Time to Leave the Next Day to Beat the Traffic on the A303).
Most Christian festivals, feast days and oddities are based on something biblical that is worth of being remembered and celebrated (although the practice of Beating the Bounds is just plain weird). Lent has closer ties to the Bible than most. The period is obviously linked to Jesus being tempted in the Wilderness for forty days and forty nights. This is, in turn, linked with the Israelites wandering in the Wilderness for forty years. The former is about faithfulness and fasting, the latter is about faithlessness and getting bored of the same dinner. (I like quail as much as the next man, but I wouldn’t want it every day.)
Why this forty day period has been earmarked as the ‘pre-match build-up’ to Easter is less clear to me. But it has been a tradition in numerous Christian denominations for centuries. Ironically, it seems to be one of the few things they have in common.
Lent seems to be about fasting. But what does Jesus make of fasting? Having set the standard in the desert, Jesus doesn’t make a big deal about it. Fasting was a common practice, and there’s no indication that he wanted it to end and that there was no longer any need for it. He did parody those who make a big show of fasting, contorting their faces in pain and making a public display of their self-denial, as if this in some way brings about divine favour. It doesn’t.
Perhaps today, Jesus would be even more satirical about what Lent and Easter has become. Maybe he would begin by pointing to the day when Lent begins, Shrove Tuesday, so-called because one is obtaining absolution – or shriving – for one’s sins. It’s surely a short hop from there to calling it Pancake Day, using up the fat before the lean season of Lent. Other cultures are less subtle, calling that day ‘Fat Tuesday’, which has in turn morphed into gaudy Mardi Gras celebrations where the vibe seems to be ‘Lent starts tomorrow so right now, let’s behave like sailors on shore leave’. If Jesus has instituted Lent, I’m not sure this would be how he imagined the launch date looking.
And so we move on to the period of Lent itself and the token giving up of something, like a sugary cocoa product. In effect, Lent has become an excuse to have another swing at a New Year’s Resolution. A second bite of the apple. The last chance saloon for will power. Somehow, Easter has become about self-improvement – when it is intended to bring about something quite different: a contrite and broken heart that cries out to the Lord for forgiveness and grace, rather than a forced smile wrapped around a low-fat sugar-free cereal bar.
Somehow, it is now appropriate to end this season of self-denial with the gorging on chocolate eggs on Easter Sunday. How did this happen? Presumably the same way as the transformation of the celebration of the Birth of Christ with dragging a tree indoors, covering it in shiny balls, topping it off with a fairy (rather than an angel) and using mistletoe as social blackmail for getting a free kiss.
The chocolate Easter eggs are another oddity that we have come to accept as normal. But it can’t have been part of the plan from Day 1, surely? It’s a Monty Python scene when you think about it. Picture the Good Friday scene with Eric Idle as a thief on the cross leaning over to Jesus and saying ‘I know you’re omniscient and all that but here’s one you won’t see coming. In two thousand years’ time, they’ll remember your death on the cross and subsequent empty tomb by giving each other eggs made of chocolate. Some of them will have a free mug underneath. It’s funny old world, eh?’
This article is one of many to be found in Death by Civilisation: How to Accidentally Ruin a Perfectly Decent Society (and How It Might be Saved) which is here.
If you search hard enough for reaction to the news that Fatima Salaria, a muslim woman, has been appointed Commissioning Editor for Ethics and Religion, you will find some. The usual suspects have duly provided sufficient righteous indignation to prove that they’re still paying attention.
The Express headline reads: “BBC puts Muslim in charge of religious television shows”. This ignores the fact the previous person “in charge of religious television shows” was also a Muslim, so this is the least interesting aspect of this story and an odd choice for a headline.
It is perhaps newsworthy that the BBC have seen fit to appoint another Muslim given that Britain is, on paper at least, a Christian nation. That’s the angle you’ll find lower down in The Express article which quotes the latest ONS figures that in 2011 “59.3 per cent of the population identify themselves as Christian”.
As usual, the story is more complicated. Salaria’s new job is not a like-for-like appointment with her predecessor because Aaqil Ahmed was Head of Religion and Ethics. His job was scrapped. His portfolio was then lumped in with James Purnell’s role as “Head of Radio and Education”, which already seems to be an odd collection.
It is hard to discern Salaria’s new job title because the BBC Press Office hasn’t announced the appointment. It looks like she is “commissioning editor for Ethics and Religion” according to the Mail Online. The BBC Press Office is more keen on telling you about BBC One’s Big Painting Challenge inspiring “Snapchat artists across the country”. So do look out for that.
The Express headline also suggests that Fatima Salaria will be “in charge of religious television shows”. This is clearly nonsense as all of the above indicates. Salaria is an Editor, not the Head her predecessor was. Besides, all power at the BBC lies with the channels, not those in charge of genres.
Note the job title switch. Aaqil Ahmed was Head of Religion and Ethics. Fatima Salaria is Commissioning Editor of Ethics and Religion. Ethics now takes precedence over religion.
And all of the above explains my reaction on hearing about this appointment. I received a Facebook message from a non-religious friend who is a regular critic of the BBC. He was interested to know my reaction. I replied that I was ambivalent as I’ve never really expected the BBC to make anything on the subject of religion that I’d be interested in.
That sounds more vitriolic than intended and I get more than my money’s worth from the licence fee. But I don’t think Religion and Ethics, sorry, Ethics and Religion is any different to other genres. As a general rule, if you’re a fan of something, a mainstream broadcaster is unlikely to tell you anything you didn’t already know on the subject, or give you insights you hadn’t already seen, heard or read.
Take the popular magazine-show Countryfile. If you were brought up in the countryside, as I was, you would spot that it is a very carefully and neatly packaged view of the country. It almost always assumes that the viewer lives in a town and that the extent of their knowledge of the countryside is to make sure you shut gates behind you.
It’s worth noting that Countryfile was a replacement for a show that was specifically about farming, and aimed at farmers, broadcast around lunchtime on Sundays. My dad used to watch it – mainly for the long range weather forecast which was very useful in the pre-internet age. But clearly the show was deemed too specific and niche, so it was broadened out into a show about the countryside. If you want in-depth reporting on farming now, you need to turn to Radio 4’s Farming Today.
I do actually watch Countryfile, or at least the bits about Adam’s farm, which do occasionally give some sense of what farming is actually like. But, despite being a Christian, I don’t watch Songs of Praise. In fact, maybe it’s because I’m a Christian that I don’t watch Songs of Praise, because it’s just a pale reflection of what church is, a community as much as a spectacle or experience. And it’s a very fake version of that experience, showing packed churches of smiling faces singing in perfect unison. Plenty of churches in Britain are full on a Sunday, but it’s not neat, or televisual. You kind of have to be there. Which is why I don’t watch The Big Questions, incidentally. Because I’m in church.
Television is a difficult media to get right. Or at least it’s very easy to get wrong. It moves fast because the eyes and brain require stimulation. The extremes and oddities make much better TV than the norm. None of this bodes well when trying to portray and reflect the day-to-day life of faith in the believer. This why any vicar in any soap will end up having an illicit relationship, embezzling money or losing their faith, or a combination of those three things. Christians, or believers of various faiths, may wish to see or hear about the more down-to-earth kind of faith – and you can find that on The Daily Service on Radio 4 Long Wave if you really want it – but it does not make for great television.
The BBC also has to face the issue of balance. Religion is not balanced. Not even the Church of England, which seems pretty wishy-washy to some. The doctrines and dogma are quite specific and editorially, the preference is for religion to know its place.
But religion doesn’t work like that. Not if you’re religious. It seeps out. As St Peter says “We cannot help speaking of what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20) This is precisely the kind of religion the BBC is seeking to avoid out of context. So if a sports person suddenly mentions their faith in an interview, or wishes to praise their maker for their abilities, you can see the utter panic and embarrassment in the eyes of the hapless BBC sporting correspondent who was simply not prepared for a living, vibrant faith, and was rather expecting some platitudes about training hard and giving 110%.
Religion can be safely contained in ninety-second news stories. We regular get reports on sermons by the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Pope on very slow news days, around Christmas, New Year and Easter. BBC Radio Four has Beyond Belief which can be informed and interesting. There is also the occasional episode of In Our Time which covers something absurdly specific like Pelagianism or the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.
Documentaries are a place where religion can be controlled, especially historical ones, looking back on how Christian Britain used to be. TV has produced a few examples. In Our Time’s Melvyn Bragg made a superb expensive-looking hour-long programme about Bible-translator, William Tyndale.
That said, much of his praise for Tyndale was about the formation of the English language rather than Tyndale’s hope that he could help his fellow countrymen meet Christ in scripture for themselves. But that is to be expected as Bragg does not claim to be a Christian. He has said recently that he does “not believe in the ‘fundamental tenets’ of Christianity”. Fair enough.
But why have non-religious presenters of shows about religion and faith? Again, we return to the tyranny of TV. It’s a ratings game. They need eyeballs and they’d rather have someone famous than pious. It’s understandable.
Moreover, they could argue with some justification that everyone is entitled to their opinion about religion. But they tend to have ex-players talking about football on Match of the Day, and trained chefs talking about food on the panoply of cooking shows made every year. Why not the same with religion - sorry, there I go again – Ethics and Religion?
Perhaps the BBC thinks that having non-religious presenters doesn’t matter because the audience isn’t that interested in religion either. This may be true. Only about ten percent of the population go to church or a mosque. The BBC has to be more mindful of the ninety per cent. Fair enough. Although they keep pushing out news and documentaries about politics and ninety per cent of the population aren’t interested in that either.
Presumably, The Big Questions is being made for non-religious people. But if that is the case, why schedule it on a Sunday morning where non-religious people might mistake it for something that it isn’t? Why not broadcast it on a Tuesday night? Or a Saturday afternoon? We return to the compartmentalisation of religion. It’s religious, so it goes out on a Sunday. Those who want it can find it. And those who don’t can avoid it.
I do listen to religious media, mostly via podcasts and straight from the horse’s mouth: sermons, interviews or discussions with Christians, by Christians and for Christians. There is no need to add caveats, or worry about the non-religious listener since they’re unlikely to be downloading hour-long sermons on Nehemiah or discussions about substitutionary atonement. These shows don’t talk about religious experience, they are a religious experience. They are about the content of the religion and the theology. These are largely programmes the BBC would never and could never do.
Maybe the BBC could find a way if they really put their mind to it and invested heavily, or made some public and firm commitments to serve the faithful and the faithless. They could find new voices and presenters if they looked hard and decided to champion them.
But the BBC has little intention of so doing. The Corporation takes pride in many things: natural history documentaries; ‘shiny floor’ entertainment shows; high-end drama; the occasional landmark sitcom; sporadic sports coverage where the rights permit. Coverage of religion is not, never has been and never will be, on that list. The closest in recent times has probably been Wolf Hall, although that has been played more a political drama than a religious one.
Fatima Salaria may well prove me wrong, and I’d be happy with that. But the odds are stacked against her. The fact is that the BBC doesn’t understand religion and doesn’t want to. That’s why they’ve changed and downgraded Head of Religion and Ethics to Editor of ‘Ethics and Religion’. Ethics stem from religion, even if that religion is a post-Judeo-Christian-quasi-socialist-secularism. That is the one religion the BBC most effectively and passionately preaches.
I was eight when The Living Planet arrived on BBC1. I remember looking forward to it all day at school and being able to stay up to watch in the evenings. You had to watch things live back in 1984 when video recorders were not common. It was thrilling to see the natural world as it had never been seen before. On TV, at least.
Somehow, Sir David Attenborough’s team have managed to repeat that trick every three or four years, wowing us with nature. I've watched the most recent series, Planet Earth II, with my eight-year old daughter. We are able to watch in installments throughout the week, thanks to Sky+. Unsurprisingly, the pin-sharp jaw-dropping footage has created gasps from our sofa, and across the nation. It's been a ratings smash. The only thing that British people want to see in greater numbers is amateur bakers making cakes.
What does this show have to do with Christmas? Two things.
The first doesn't sound all that Christmassy at first, but it is. And it's this: the most exciting and gripping bit of each episode is the hunt. Every week, there's always some poor animal running the gauntlet. A giraffe trying to escape from a pride of hungry lions. A Cayman crocodile being grabbed by a jaguar. A poor lizard, only minutes old, running the gauntlet of those nasty snakes.
In these hunt sequences we see beauty and brutality. ‘Nature, red in tooth and claw’ as the poet Tennyson puts it in his poem, In Memoriam. Red blood, flowing from the wounds made by the teeth and the claws of the wild animals.
Many of us will only ever see this kind of visceral physical conflict on television. But for the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks that we read about in Luke Chapter 2 (see? I told you it would get Christmassy), this brutal side of nature was part of their daily lives. It still is for many animal herds across the word. Shepherds watch their flocks to keep them safe from wild animals that would happily help themselves to a woolly lamb.
But we have to ask the question: Following the birth of Jesus, why does Luke tell us about these shepherds? And why does God choose to bring the news of Jesus’ birth to lowly keepers of sheep?
There’s a clue back in the Old Testament, in another firm favourite Bible story that's told to children. The great shepherd, David, turns up in 1 Samuel 17, visiting his warrior brothers, only to find they are scared of this nine foot Philistine, Goliath. David fancies his chances. King Saul suggest that this is not such a good idea, and doesn't give David a hope. But David tells Saul that as a shepherd, he is used to dealing with ferocious beasts and wild animals. "When a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth. When it turned on me, I seized it by its hair, struck it and killed it. Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, because he has defied the armies of the living God. The Lord who rescued me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will rescue me from the hand of this Philistine.”
David can handle himself. Or at least, God has form in rescuing him from lions and bears. Why should Goliath, an enemy of Israel, be any different? You'll know how the story ends. David slays the Philistine giant – and goes on to be a truly great King, the Shepherd King. From Bethlehem. That should sound familiar.
About a thousand years later, in the City of David, a new king is born in that family line. A king who will look after his sheep, go searching for lost sheep, and will lay down his life for his sheep. In so doing, he will slay the great enemy, Satan himself, and Death itself.
We can't be sure, but that’s probably why the angels announce news first to the shepherds on the hills outside Bethlehem.
The second observation about Planet Earth II is this. It's not just one of the best programmes on the BBC. It’s also the most religious. More so even than Songs of Praise or The Big Questions with Nicky Campbell. The images of the natural world and the beauty of the creatures in their splendour are just astonishing. But of course, it’s not a natural world. God made it. God designed it. God sustains it.
Whether you believe in an earth that's 6000 or 6 billion years old, or whether you look out from a mountain top or extremely close up, whether you observe the smallest insect, the most beautiful bird, or the sleekest big cat, you get a sense of awe and wonder. It takes you outside of yourself. We see, we experience and we know that there’s a God.
Some don't, of course. But many do. Historically, most have. We shouldn’t be surprised at this. In Romans 1:20, the apostle Paul writes: “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.” God's fingerprints are all over the so-called natural world.
But Sir David Attenborough doesn’t see it that way. When asked in a TV inteview if he ever gets 'a sense of God’s pattern in creation’, he replied:
"Well, if you ask…about that, then you see very beautiful things like hummingbirds, orchids, and so on. But you also ought to think of the other, less attractive things, [like]… tapeworms or the parasitic worm that lives only in the eyeballs of human beings, boring its way through them, in West Africa, for example, where it's common, turning people blind…. And I certainly find it difficult to believe that a God — superhuman, supreme power — would actually do that."
Sir David says that it’s one or the other. You can have a divine creator who made all the beauty. But that he also made the brutal bugs and the devastating diseases that cause so much pain and suffering. It’s a common sceptical conclusion for many, especially from those who have seen so much pain first hand.
But Christmas is good news for Sir David. Except it's not news really. It was written about in the book of Isaiah about 2700 years ago. Chapter 11 says this:
“A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse, [David’s father];
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him...
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.
The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
their young will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
The infant will play near the cobra’s den,
and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious.
They are very striking images. Wolves and lambs together. Cows with bears. Lions eating alongside oxen. A Clinton Cards classic. What's going on here? Is this what a descendant of David will bring?
Anyone with small children will know how brilliant they are at finding trouble and danger. I'm sure my youngest would find a viper's nest given the chance, and plunge her arm down it. But in the new world that Jesus will bring, she will be quite safe. Pain, eminity, brutality and death will have passed away.
Sir David is right to question the suffering in the world. It doesn't seem fair. It seems brutal and wrong. The good news is that if we have a problem with all the suffering in the world, so does God. If we think that God isn’t doing anything about the brutality of the world, or hasn’t, or won’t, or can’t, then we’ve not understood Christmas. We’ve not understood who this baby is. We don't realise what this baby will do.
Jesus, God’s shepherd king, will bring peace when He returns. That's what we should be thinking about in the season of Advent. Jesus will defeat the giants of death and suffering. In that world, shepherds will no longer wrestle with lions and bears. People won’t be given malaria by mosquitoes or blinded by tapeworms. Sir David, “The infant will play near the cobra’s den, and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.” The God you want is the God we have. Why not hurry off to Bethlehem to see this Saviour that’s been born?
A few years ago, Ricky Gervais wrote a pleasant and personal Holiday Message – partly explaining his atheism – in the Wall Street Journal (here). In it, he respectfully argues that his atheism stems from childhood when he couldn’t help but feel that his belief in God was a lie. And that he had been lied to. It’s interesting that he abandoned his faith because of an experience. When his faith was challenged, he didn’t seek proof or evidence, but gave up hope in the possibility of a god.
In the same article, Gervais also says this:
Science seeks the truth. And it does not discriminate. For better or worse it finds things out. Science is humble. It knows what it knows and it knows what it doesn’t know. It bases its conclusions and beliefs on hard evidence – ‐ evidence that is constantly updated and upgraded. It doesn’t get offended when new facts come along… I’m not saying faith doesn’t exist… But believing in something doesn’t make it true. Hoping that something is true doesn’t make it true. The existence of God is not subjective. He either exists or he doesn’t. It’s not a matter of opinion. You can have your own opinions. But you can’t have your own facts.
This is a popular and widespread view – that science is definitive and factual and that religion is purely sensory and imaginary. This may be true of some faiths and spiritualities which make no claim to have any factual or scientific basis.
But it puzzles me that many people still make this charge against Christianity, which claims to be sensory, but also factual. A few years ago, I ended up writing a play on this very subject, called The God Particle. (You can now get it as a DVD.)
Christmas is an excellent time to consider this questions since this is the very thing we celebrate at Christmas – Jesus as God Incarnate. He is also called ‘Emmanuel’ which means ‘God with us’. Christianity does not worship a distant, silent God who is unknown and unknowable. Christianity is based around the Christ of Christmas. in which we celebrate God himself born on earth as a baby, who grew up to be a man of flesh and bone. Unless we’ve been thoroughly beguiled by some silly Dan Brown theories that have no credence within academia, no-one is seriously contesting the existence of the man, Jesus of Nazareth, who lived for 30-odd years before dying on a cross.
If this Jesus had lived a dull, uneventful life and died at the age of 70 and was buried, the claim that Jesus was God would surely have less credence? His short life was far from uneventful. He performed miracles to a sceptical crowd. He taught strangers how to live in ways which astonished them. Without writing a single book, composing a single song or holding a single position of earthly authority, he became the most notorious, intriguing man in all human history.
If we’re being open-mindedly scientific, surely we need to take a look at the facts again? To assume they are invented is to prejudge them. To insist that his miracles can’t have happened is to discriminate against them.
Followers of Jesus Christ aren’t suggesting for a moment that anyone can heal the sick, walk on water or raise the dead. But they are insisting that one man can. And did. Christians don’t have faith in the God-Man behind these miracles because they are trying to convince themselves it’s true in spite of the facts. They are saying that Jesus’s claim to be God himself are the best fit for the facts.
Maybe, this Christmas, we could be more like the good scientists who take one more look at the facts. The results may be surprising.