“Jesus said, ‘The meek will inherit the earth.’ Well, they might do but they get no press along the way at all, they’re completely forgotten,” said Chiles. “And I’m not just talking about Christians, I’m talking about [all religions].”
The football presenter hosts a new religious series beginning tomorrow night on BBC2, for which the working title, Holy Med, has been replaced by the less religious-sounding My Mediterranean with Adrian Chiles. “The fourth word in it is ‘God’. It’s as though they think everyone will have lost their remote control,” the presenter said of a series which opens with him saying “I believe in God”, and in which he spends time with Christians, Muslims and Jews.
Judging by his interview, the BBC took any reference to religion out of the title. Here's a summary of what it's all about: a personal tour of the Med, meeting Christians, Muslims and Jews, and trying to deal with his own questions about God and faith along the way.
There were three striking things about last nights episode. I'll start with the most disconcerting. Chiles made his confession to a Catholic cardinal, speaking about his divorce in particular. Rather than offering grace, the cardinal suggested an annulment. I'm not surprised Chiles wasn't satisfied, it's an outrageous suggestion: the marriage happened, the divorce happened, but the idea that the solution is a paper technicality rather than the amazing grace of God is an insult to the gospel.
The second was the people Chiles sought out. The series was a deliberate antidote to religious fanaticism, profiling people from all 3 religions whose main goal is to do good and bless others. "I want to show that religion actually does more good than harm. I won’t be seeking out the religious zealots – they get quite enough airtime if you ask me. I just want to find the majority; the nice, normal, gentle people who happen to be religious.” It was a welcome counter-narrative to the extremists and atheists usually paraded by the media, and by radicalising groups: that we have more in common than we think, and less to be afraid of than we're told.
Which fed into the third striking thing, which was Chiles repeated argument that Jews, Muslims and Christians all worship the same God. There was a stress on the unknowability of God, and therefore the provisionality of our approach to him. Chiles said he has “more in common with a liberal Jew and a liberal Muslim than I have with even a conservative Roman Catholic”. He added: “Does it calm you down or fire you up? If it’s the latter, I think you are missing the point but who am I to judge? It’s [religious] fervour that frightens me more than anything else." Fervour was equated with wanting to convert people.
There's more than one way to show religious fervour: you have to be highly committed to make religious vows, or to run a Catholic school with 80% of Muslim children that tries to build bridges. The peacemakers need to be just as zealous as everyone else.
Adrian Chiles was a very engaging presenter, and last nights episode was refreshing, informative, well-paced and personal. It's a reminder that practice can often make more sense to people than theology (though the section where he tries to work out the prayer practices in a synagogue is hilarious). But the internal logic of each faith involves uniqueness: a chosen people, 'the prophet', the son of God. That didn't seem to fit with the narrative. I can understand that: Chiles (oddly for a football fan) is discomfited by passionate adherence, and wants to know that we can live together happily. But to be acceptable, we have to give up being missionary. What would Jesus do?
Well done to Adrian Chiles for sticking his head above the parapet, more of this sort of thing please.