Simon Barrow

Losing our (radio) religion?

By Simon Barrow
April 27, 2007

The issue about how the churches see their engagement with culture, including spaces like BBC Radio 4's Thought for The Day (TFTD), is related to the question about how God has been turned into an artefact under Christendom - and how 'Christian culture' has enabled that to happen.

This is one of the points I am seeking to make in a recent Ekklesia column - Why we need to rid ourselves of 'the god of the slots'. What I'm arguing for, both pragmatically and (rather more importantly, from my point of view) theologically, is Christians learning to share space and engage in public conversation - rather than trying to preserve broadcasting or societal enclaves at the expense of others.

However, it was helpfully pointed out to me that the original title (Why we need to rid ourselves of 'God slots') could have been misunderstood as an anti-TFTD one. Which it isn't. I believe it can flourish. I'm just saying that you can't put God in a "slot". And the idea that a "Christians only" or "religious only" policy is a good way to advance the churches' attractiveness in the media (or anywhere else) seems to me extraordinarily miscalculated, quite apart from indefensible in a plural era and contradicting of the Gospel message.

This message, lest it be forgotten, concerns Jesus' refusal to allow the religious rulers to think they can determine who is 'in' or 'out' with God. By healing the 'unclean', associating with the disreputable and blessing the outsiders, Jesus defines "God's zone" as an expanding arena of demanding grace, not a restricted piece of religious or political territory. This is why he was and is a threat. (I know the church often doesn't behave like this, but that is no reason to ignore the core dynamic).

Anyway, back to Thought for the Day. Our good friend Giles Fraser disagrees with us on this. Along with others, he's not inclined to "open" TFTD to those who do not adhere to religious doctrines (a formula which already suggests as certain kind of proprietorialness). I mention this partly to indicate that Ekklesia associates, though identifying with many of our values, remain freethinkers in a debate, not adherers to a "line".

Giles' view is that it is fair and reasonable for TFTD to be about religion, just as other programmes or 'slots' are not about religion. His analogy is as follows: having the non-religious on Thought for the Day is like asking for meat in a veggie cafe, or perhaps demanding veggie food in a butcher's shop.

Well yes, except that this presupposes what it seeks to defend - the idea that TFTD somehow has to be "religious", and that the category of "religion" in this area of broadcasting makes it distinctive and definable. In Why we need to rid ourselves of 'the god of the slots' I argue that, phenomenologically and theologically, it ain't necessarily so. (As it happens I'm also a vegetarian. I often eat out at non-veggie restaurants, I invite meat eaters for meals. And I used to buy apple juice at an organic butcher's shop. All these things are possible.)

So I can see Giles' point. But in my view it would be equally defensible, and fairer, to say that TFTD's new distinctiveness could be as a space in a news show (otherwise preoccupied by life defined in terms of politics and economics) where we get to hear how people of different life-stances find meaning, purpose, value, uplift, perspective and ethical challenge. That seems not unimportant, and it in no way means that people like Giles and - of course - Jonathan Bartley shouldn't have a voice. Though there are no guarantees.

The fact is, radio is not a zero-sum game. There's always an opportunity to broaden or deepen the agenda. And perhaps to engage listeners who feel alienated by their exclusion. It could also be a spur to greater quality. The idea that non-religious speakers would be negative or aggressive is, in this respect, a non-starter. Without making the thing bland (which it sometimes can be), it is perfectly possible to choose contributors from many backgrounds who have something positive to say - not just someone else to knock. And within that, the odd bit of controversy is fine. Let's lighten up.

In short, as someone without a personal stake in this, I don't quite see why some of those around TFTD in the BBC seem so defensive about the idea of humanists and other non-religious people giving a 'Thought'. Without them, indeed, TFTD becomes less and less viable, given the realities of a mixed-conviction society and the scale of non-adherence. So the 'defenders' are threatening what they want to preserve. (And in many respects they are doing a favour to the kind of secularists - not, I think, a majority - who would probably prefer the removal of "religious voices" from broadcasting altogether, not greater diversity and plurality.)

Meanwhile, when the issue came up on Radio 4 itself, Jonathan Bartley felt obliged to say something constructive about a wider invitation. After all, Ekklesia argues strongly that Christian engagement in public life after Christendom should be about witness not control, service not domination, and participation not privilege. It would therefore be wrong of us (hypocritical, even) not to put that into practice by calling for an end to the prohibition on the non-religious.

Incidentally, it is worth noting that Thought for the Day used to be a "Christians only" slot. Then people of other faiths came in. There were complaints, I recall, but the roof hardly caved in. It didn't mean the "elimination" of (differing) Christian perspectives, as some had feared. The airwaves are capacious and open. The same will be the case when or if humanists come on board. In a sense, Kwame Kwei-Armah has showed the way - says a secular blog that also suggests having nurses, teachers, street sweepers and others to reflect on how life looks to them.

Meanwhile, Joel Edwards of the Evangelical Alliance - who has also defended the status quo - found himself in a rather curious position on Radio 4 when invited to comment on TFTD. Under pressure to define religion, he ended up saying that serious thought could be given to having Scientologists on, but not the non-religious. (A bizarre headline flashed through my mind when I heard that: "EA advocates cults over atheists!" - it illustrates, to my thinking, just how untenable this sort of 'definitionism' is).

There is an alternative to the 'bounded set' mentality, where we set up a wall around a particular definition of "religious" and place people inside or outside it (as a Christian, I'd prefer to be outside that one!). It is a 'centrifugal' approach. This is one where the core is agreed (a space for 'spirited takes' on living today from mainstream religious and non-religious voices, say) and the boundaries are left porous.

Of course that doesn't mean that decisions won't have to be taken, that life will become easier for BBC planners, that controversy will disappear, that there isn't scope for specific programmes "about religion", or that the instinctive scoffers will go away. But it does mean that the issue of TFTD as a valuable, prime-time reflection slot comes to be about negotiation more than imposition. Isn't that what public service broadcasting is about?

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