Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Around the TV in 81 Faiths

Channel 4's 'Christianity, A History' and BBC2's 'Around the World in 80 Faiths' both wrapped up last week. I've caught more of the latter than the former, but both series left me frowning.

Christianity: A Good Kicking was an 'interesting' take on the history of the Christian faith, starting with a polemic against anti-Semitism, and ending with the 'science v faith' debate presented by Colin Blakemore, an Oxford neuroscientist who is convinced that science wins hands down. The final programme gave a semblance of even-handedness, but 2 of the 3 Christians interviewed were a young earth creationist and an atheist priest, so it was a bit like watching Manchester United play Lark Rise.

The life of Jesus was dismissed without any reference to the evidence or historical sources, and the debate between science and faith would have been much better serviced by an interview with a prominent Christian scientist like David Wilkinson or Sir John Houghton.

There were also various tweaks on the facts presented: the founding of the USA was presented as a triumph of science over religion, airbrushing out the fact that the Pilgrim Fathers, and most of the founders, were Christians and theists who just wanted to be free from a controlling church. The separation of church and state is based on a view of a different role for religion in civil life, not its complete absence. At the same time the shameful history of the church in persecuting those who didn't toe the dogmatic line is a historic fact, but opposition between science and faith was presented as pretty much the whole story of the last 500 years, and it isn't.

The programme concluded with the faith statement that science would ultimately explain everything, and religion would die out. I remember Marx saying something similar over 100 years ago.

Around the world in 80 faiths concluded in Europe, juxtaposing Christian persecution of Lapland pagans with Communist persecution of Latvian Catholics. It ended by contrasting the decline of Benedictine monasticism in the Italian Catholic heartland with the rise of a New Age community which treats all religions as equals. Peter Owen Jones thesis seemed to be that any inclusive religion/faith is a good thing, and an exclusive faith community is a bad thing.

The series' greatest strength was also its greatest weakness. Watching Jones throw himself into every religious ritual he came across probably gave us more insight into them than someone who stood on the outside and simply watched and analysed. But at the same time there seemed to be little discernment or critique beyond how it felt, or how inclusive it was. Jones spoke about 'the divine' a lot, but after 8 programmes we knew nothing more about 'the divine' than when we started. Whether there were 80 ways to God or just one, you wouldn't have been any the wiser.

Both programmes are, at time of writing, still available on Catchup/Iplayer respectively.

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