Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Bible: A History

Update: watched this evening: lots of good things about it - no daft camerawork, an argument that wasn't repeated either side of the ad break for fillers, a good spread of opinions (Jonathan Sacks, AC Grayling, Greg Haslam, John Polkinghorne) a presenter very clear about his own biases and open to learn something about the topic he was presenting, and very thought-provoking. Lot's of stuff I remember thinking 'ooh that's a good quote', but unfortunately I've forgotten the actual quotes themselves.

Jacobsen comes down on Genesis as a 'myth' - a story of origins which is about how we fit into the world and who we are, rather than a scientific account, which wasn't far from what Sacks & Polkinghorne were saying about it. I was struck by him saying that it takes more sophistication and imagination to read Genesis this way, rather than just assume it's a literal historical text and then accept or dismiss it on that basis.

New series on Channel 4 this evening, which looks like a follow-on to 'Christianity, A History' which aired at roughly this time last year. Based on the detail so far, they're even recycling some of the presenters: Howard Jacobsen kicks off the series by looking at the early chapters of Genesis and the Creation account, and Rageh Omaar is on next week looking at the story of Abraham.

It looks like we'll get a bit of Ann Widdecombe as well - I was going to say that she fills Cherie Blairs shoes, but that's not an entirely helpful mental image. I'm betting we'll get a bit of Robert Beckford as well. It would be great to have an artist, or a musician like Nick Cave, looking at Revelation and the sci-fi/apocalyptic literature, but we'll have to see.

If it's anything like 'Christianity, A History', each account will be a mixture of the historical and the personal. Jacobsens piece last year was a sustained polemic against anti-Semitism. His approach to Genesis sounds intriguing:

Jacobson describes himself as a 'non-practising Jew who fears all fanaticism bred by faith'. Yet he is moved to fury by what he calls the 'New Atheists', whose most vocal cheerleader is evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins.

Not only, in Howard's view, do they oppose fundamentalist certainty with a no less intolerant certainty of their own, but they misunderstand the nature of religion, in particular the function of the Creation Myth. On the other hand, he is disturbed by creationists who believe in the literal truth of the Creation story and try to use science to support their faith.

Today there is a raging battle between the two camps, those who believe that Genesis, the first book of the Bible, is a true account of how life began, and those who dismiss it as childish nonsense.

Jacobson sets out to find a path between the fundamentalisms of religion and atheism and to reach a way of reading the Creation story that explains why it continues to stir the imagination even of unbelievers like himself.

I hope he makes it clear that not all atheists are 'new atheists', and not all believers are fundamentalists.

Some general blurb:
This series explores the origins, ideas and influence of seven sections of the Scriptures, tracing how they came into existence and how they have shaped the world we live in today.

Each film is written and presented by a prominent figure with a particular interest or experience relevant to the part of the Bible being examined. They offer a personal interpretation of some of the best-known aspects of this ancient book, which still guides the lives of millions of believers across the globe.

Jacobsen also wrote about the series in this weeks Radio Times, which hasn't yet found its way onto their site. Shame.

Oh, and BBC4 had a rerun of the 9 lessons and carols for atheists last night.


  1. What's "new" about "new atheism", other than the aspect of voicing criticism and counter argument more openly because of simpler access to mass communication channels (i.e. the internet)?

    Are there any new arguments? (none that I've heard other than perhaps genetic re-enforcements of Darwin's theory of evolution etc.)

  2. Thanks Steve - that may indeed be all there is to it! I suppose it identifies a particular group of people and approach to the debate, rather than 'atheism' as a more generalised philosophy. So as soon as you say 'new atheism' people think of Dawkins, Hitchens, Grayling etc., rather than thinking first and foremost of the absence of God.

    Do you think it's a useful label, or not? I guess I use it without thinking, and mainly just in copying the usage by other people.

  3. It's a sound bite I suppose, something that gets a reaction. But I can't help wincing slightly every time I hear it because being a geek I dislike the imprecision of it. Probably the same as when someone equates "Ted Haggard" with Christianity, it's true but not for the reason one feels is important, if you see what I mean.