Thought for the day

Faith & Reason: The difficulties of religious broadcasting stem less from the presenters than from the gap between them and their audience, argues Andrew Brown.

Andrew Brown
Friday 10 May 1996 23:02

The problem with Thought for the Day is not that it seems to turn its presenters' brains to mayonnaise but that it has the same effect on listeners. I have often tried to listen to it, but even when I succeed I just end up shouting "You smarmy git" at the bedside radio. More often, one's attention just dissolves and the presenter might as well be talking about the mating habits of tuna for all the impression he makes. Despite the great rush of opinion about the programme in the last week, no one seems to remember anything that was ever said on it.

This makes the subject a gift for columnists. There are no vulgar facts to intrude, and, since no one can remember anything ever said on the programme, it is possible to use the sacking of seven presenters as proof of any conspiracy theory you like: that the BBC is in the hands of atheists, scientologists, opus deistas or incompetents. I can't myself see any pattern in it at all, except a certain boredom with people who have been doing it for years. The Venerable George Austin is a nice man and a good joke; sacking him makes no theological statement. Father Oliver McTernan, whose opinions are opposed to George's on almost any subject conceivable, has been sacked at the same time.

It would appear that the real difficulty for the producers in that the pool of religious talent in Britain is pretty shallow. Even journalists on daily newspapers have now been approached to contribute to Thought for the Day. If preaching were wanted, the general standard is pretty ghastly, and anyone who edits a column like this will know all too painfully how dreadful are most of the submissions received. Actually the problem is more subtle than that. Most priests and even theologians are educated people doing jobs they think worthwhile that bring them into contact with a huge range of human experience. They have a great deal to say and can express themselves well - so long as they are not asked to exhibit these gifts in public. The private letters that I get are almost without exception thoughtful, cogent and enjoyable. The stuff meant for public consumption is not.

Perhaps the problem is the time slot. Presumably, for a Christian broadcaster, the model Thinker would be Jesus: young, charismatic, impeccably orthodox - but above all a master of the pithy parable. In so far as the gospels record the sayings of Jesus, they are full of wonderfully broadcastable chunks, which gain hugely from not being explicated too much. But a little mathematics will show that even Jesus could not rescue Thought for the Day for very long. I do not know how many parables there are in the Gospels, but the figure must be less than a hundred. That would last the producers less than four months. There must be a limit to what can be said in a worthwhile and memorable way in a couple of minutes.

Another difficulty is the demand for topicality. This is bad enough when there is no news to stir the imagination. It is a thousand times worse on those mercifully rare occasions when a religious response seems called for, even by the irreligious, like the Dunblane massacre. It seems to me that there are two possible religious responses to any sudden eruption of evil into the world. One is silence, reverent, attentive, and prolonged. The other was produced by a Saudi Minister of the Interior some years ago when a sudden stampede during the Haj pilgrimage crushed hundreds of pilgrims to death. "It was the will of God," he said, and closed the subject. Neither response would sit well on the Today programme.

The second, Saudi, reaction contains the germ of quite an interesting meditation on why Christianity should be superior to Islam. An orthodox Christian must be just as committed to the view that an omnipotent God in some sense wills everything that happens. But the Christian worldview has at least the potential for tragedy: an awareness that there is something stubborn and valuable in human beings to which submission to the will of God does not come easily, and perhaps not even naturally.

Already, I hear listeners yawning. The natural form for radio is a story, which is why the best radio preachers are fundamentalists. By far the liveliest Christian radio is the most reprehensible: no one ever came away from Jimmy Swaggart bored. The only other people with as much story- telling in their culture are rabbis such as Lionel Blue - and all everyone remembers about him is that he told stories about food.

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