Does the BBC now “do God”?

On 20th December the BBC announced that it would be airing more religious programming, including a greater representation of all faiths.

I heard this announcement when Nick Robinson interviewed James Purnell, BBC Directory of Radio Education and Religious Programming about it on the Radio 4 Today programme, which you can listen to here (from 1°21’34” until 1°28’09”).

“[The BBC has promised] to enhance its coverage of religions — plural — to ensure, in other words, that Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and Jewish holy days are marked on popular programmes, and not just on what we tend to call the ‘God slot’ programming like our own Thought for the Day.”

Nick Robinson, BBC Radio 4 Today programme, 20 December 2017

In Nick Robinson’s words, the BBC had promised “to enhance its coverage of religions — plural — to ensure, in other words, that Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and Jewish holy days are marked on popular programmes, and not just on what we tend to call the ‘God slot’ programming like our own Thought for the Day.”

Robinson put the question to Purnell, “At a time when a survey has revealed that more than half of us in the country say that we have no religion, why is the BBC doing more religion?”

To which Purnell answered, “Well, it matters to understand who we are, how to live well, who we are as a society, you need to understand where we’ve come from, our religious background as a society, and our beliefs. Anyone listening to Living with the Gods, for example, at the moment, will have heard that it’s pretty much the first thing we do as a society, and you can’t understand Britain or how the world is changing without understanding religion and beliefs.”

Asked whether this new policy would mean merely the greater representation of people celebrating religious festivals on popular programmes such as EastEnders, or whether it would mean the BBC is taking religion and belief more seriously, Purnell answered,

“It does mean taking [religion and belief] more seriously, making sure that we get it right as much of the time as possible. So we’re going to have a new unit, for example, in BBC News, a Global Religious Affairs Unit, which will be able to make sure that we’ve got that expertise to get the facts right, but also to tell the story behind the headlines, to get to what is really happening, to the subtleties. […]

“What we want to do is make sure that religion isn’t marginalized, it’s not in a box: it’s at the heart of our schedules, done in a way that’s impactful and gets people to watch and think and challenge their views.”

Nick Robinson then put the question to Purcell about what some perceive as the BBC’s liberal agenda,

“You can’t understand Britain or how the world is changing without understanding religion and beliefs.”

James Purnell, BBC Radio 4 Today programme, 20 December 2017

“Everybody knows, they will argue, the BBC is ‘small l’ liberal, that it doesn’t represent the views — unfashionable views — held by evangelical Christians or sincere Muslims.”

To which Purnell answered:

“It’s absolutely right that we have to take those views very seriously, have them on our programmes, and challenge them and understand them and examine them in the same way that we would other views as well.”

I commend the BBC for adopting this new policy on religious broadcasting.

If indeed ‘more than half’ of the UK population say they have no religion — I assume he is referring to this recent survey which put the figure at 53% — then nearly half of the UK population do have a religion, and the BBC’s broadcasting ought to represent this.

“We’re going to have a new unit, for example, in BBC News, […] which will be able to make sure that we’ve got that expertise to get the facts right, but also to tell the story behind the headlines, to get to what is really happening, to the subtleties.”

James Purnell, BBC Radio 4 Today programme, 20 December 2017

I am thankful for James Purcell’s statement that the BBC’s new commitment to religious broadcasting is about “[getting] the facts right, [… telling] the story behind the headlines, [getting] to what is really happening, to the subtleties.”

I actually don’t think the BBC is averse to religious broadcasting — except perhaps on its website — but I remember on several occasions in the past being frustrated by the inability of the news, including the BBC, to delve into what’s really going on, what the parties involved really believe, in long-running conflicts such as the Israeli-Palestinian situation.

There are deeply and sincerely held beliefs at stake here, on both sides, which are seldom properly explained on any news programme.

I hope that this new commitment to “getting the facts right” will lead to a better understanding of evangelical Christianity on the BBC.

However frequently or even-handedly Christianity is represented on the BBC at the moment, one thing that seems glaringly missing from nearly all such representations is the concept of the Second Coming.

As we say in the Apostles’ Creed,

“On the third day he [Jesus Christ] rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.”[1]

The Second Coming of Christ — the belief that, at some future date, Jesus will return — is central to how evangelical Christians view the world and how we frame our lives. As a Christian, if you don’t believe this, you might as well not believe anything about Jesus.

“The Second Coming of Christ — the belief that, at some future date, Jesus will return — is central to how evangelical Christians view the world and how we frame our lives.”

Yet whenever discussion of Christian ethics or belief comes up in the media (not only the BBC), almost always conspicuously absent is the recognition that Christian belief and ethics is shaped by the Second Coming. The result of this, generally, is the presentation of Christian belief and ethics in a way that is inexplicable and/or incomprehensible to the average citizen.

The only time any recognition is accorded to the Christian belief in the Second Coming seems to be on history programmes about the sixteenth century, such as the recent BBC programmes presented by David Starkey and Janina Ramirez.

Once again, then, I commend the BBC for this new stance on religious content, and I hope it will result — at least now and again — in a clearer and more well-explained presentation of evangelical Christian belief.

And what of the Radio 4 Today programme’s current ‘God slot’, Thought for the Day, which John Humphrys recently termed “deeply, deeply boring”?

Part of me is inclined to agree with him.

“When I used to listen regularly to [Thought for the Day] on my way to work, I would frequently get frustrated with the content served up — I reserve comment on the speakers from other faiths — by the Christian speakers on there.”

When I used to listen regularly to this programme on my way to work, I would frequently get frustrated with the content served up — I reserve comment on the speakers from other faiths — by the Christian speakers on there. Rather than a humble but clear presentation of what Christians believe, underpinned by the two vital doctrines of Jesus’ historical death and resurrection, and of his future return: more frequently — and with one or two notable exceptions such as Anne Atkins and Rhidian Brook — we would be offered some bland moral platitude entirely unrelated to the biblical text from which it was tenuously drawn. Deeply, deeply boring indeed.

However, listening to some more recent back-episodes now, the Christian contributions seem — on the whole — a bit more substantial, and actually to be saying something.

Rev Professor David Wilkinson even recently gave a TFTD talk which explicitly did refer to the Second Coming of Christ.

Perhaps, after all, the BBC will start to articulate Christian belief more clearly when Christians themselves articulate it more clearly.

 

 

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[1] The Apostles’ Creed, given in full at https://www.churchofengland.org/our-faith/what-we-believe/apostles-creed. If you want the Second Coming taught from the Bible itself (which the words of the Apostles’ Creed aren’t), then may I refer you to just about any page of the New Testament. However, to give a handful out of the many references: Matthew 24:26-44; 1 Thessalonians 3:11-13; Hebrews 9:27-28.

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