The Week In Radio: What would Jesus have made of it all?

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The Independent Culture

There's a saying they have in America that is used to fit all occasions: What Would Jesus Do? What Would Jesus Drive, for example, or What Would Jesus Vote? One programme this week asked What Would Jesus Eat?, and the suggestions, according to painters of The Last Supper, included grilled eels, crayfish and guinea pig. This prompted me to wonder what Jesus would listen to, and to hope it wasn't Monday's Start the Week.

Even if you missed this programme you can't have avoided the controversy. The Archbishop of Canterbury said the Catholic Church in Ireland had "lost all credibility" over the child-abuse scandal. Headlines were made and umbrage was taken. So for excited listeners tuning in, it must have been mystifying to find the most controversial edition of this show for years sounding as electrifying as a Marks & Spencers board meeting.

It promised so much. The line-up of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Philip Pullman, Mona Siddiqui and David Baddiel presaged high-octane clashes on the differences between Christians, Muslims and Atheists. For a sense of occasion the programme was hiked out of Broadcasting House and transferred to Lambeth Palace. Perhaps that was the first mistake. Liberated from the intimacy of the studio, the echoey grandeur of Lambeth turned the spirited exchange of ideas into the drab stuff of the sociology lecture room. Everyone deferred to their host and the archbishop happily dominated proceedings. This was the other problem. Even those, like me, who are serious admirers of Rowan Williams, couldn't help notice that the bureaucratic caution of his language, with its "interfaith dialogues" and "corporate identity of Christianity" somewhat stifles passionate debate. So it was all the more ironic that a genuinely controversial remark should have slipped through, and entirely understandable if most listeners missed it. There were no emotional arguments, and a lot of mutual admiration. Perhaps that's what you get if you gather highly civilised people in highly civilised surroundings to discuss the irrational passions of religion. As Philip Pullman said of organised religion. "Bureaucracy always overcomes vision. That's the tragedy."

On the other hand, would Jesus listen to Christian radio? This is certainly the go-to place for passionate discussion. There is a host of offerings in this growing sector, mainly on the internet and satellite, and they run the gamut from gospel and miracles to revelation, rapture, prophesy and the end of time. One of the biggest, Premier Christian Radio, was launched in 1994 but assured a growth spurt when it moved to DAB in the final quarter of last year. Its weekly format, Unbelievable, pitted two recent converts against a sceptical atheist in a discussion hosted by Justin Brierley that would have sat comfortably on Radio 2, with a bit of evangelising thrown in. Todd Pitner from North Carolina found life as a multi-millionaire unfulfilling: "I tried drugs, drank enough to kill a moose and became a hopeless alcoholic. With really good life insurance I thought I was worth more dead than alive to my family and decided to end it all," he said. "God gaveth and he systematically tooketh away." Better still was Richard Morgan, who in some kind of divine joke came to Christ as a result of a debate thread on Richard Dawkins's website. "It was an incredible moment, as if my universe just exploded, the whole Amazing Grace thing, lights music and everything." His friends suggested he had undergone "a temporary brain infarction" but, as he said, "if that's what it is I can recommend it to anyone."

By far the most enjoyable discussion of religious customs, however, came from Radio 4's new legal high, the US humorist David Sedaris. In Meet David Sedaris he is on a European tour, reflecting on Santa Claus's alter-ego, Saint Nicholas. The news that St Nicholas is the retired bishop of Turkey is hard enough for Sedaris to take, but the discovery that in the Netherlands, St Nicholas travels not with elves but "six to eight black men" who beat bad children with "the small branch of a tree" and sometimes put them in a sack, provides the material for a horrified, hilarious, 10-minute riff. "If you told the average American that St Nicholas and six to eight black men would be sneaking into his house in the middle of the night he would arm himself with whatever he could find," Sedaris protests. It's true actually. I lived in the Dutch West Indies when I was small and I well remember cowering from St Nicholas's scary henchmen. As the Santa-figure circulated, distributing gifts, his followers would dive into the crowd of waiting children and upend one screaming child into a sack. All the emotional intensity you could ask for in that particular ceremony, but, I feel sure, not what Jesus would do.