Critical understanding of religion vital, says TV producer

By staff writers
January 17, 2009

While institutional religion is in decline in Britain, the diversification of faith in this country and the massive global impact of religion means that it is an appropriate subject for thoughtful TV programming.

That is the view of Jeremy Dear, executive producer at Pioneer Productions, whose six-part 'Christianity: A History' series continues on Channel 4 on Sunday 18 January at 7pm with 'Rome', presented by Michael Portillo.

"In the last five years, programmes about religion on the terrestrial channels have never been more prominent," says Dear in an article in the Independent newspaper - contradicting those lobby groups that say it is being marginalised.

On the other hand, Dear also disputes the generalised claims of some hard-line secularists that programming about religion is automatically 'propaganda' and should be excluded from scheduling.

He declares: "In the wake of September 11 [broadcasters have] woken up to the fact that not everyone shares a post-Enlightenment, rationalist view of the world. For billions of people, faith is still very much a 'live' issue and if we're to understand the world, it's critical that we understand the beliefs that those people espouse."

The key word, he believes is 'critical' - which means probing and understanding, not dissing or blandly promoting.

Jeremy Dear thinks that "Channel 4 in particular was quick to realise this. Under commissioner Aaqil Ahmed, it has produced a plethora of films – such as the excellent Inside the Mind of a Suicide Bomber, or its recent two hour special on the Qur'an – that explore religion as a global force today."

In fact, rather than being confined to 'god slots', "religion now appears all over the networks, in drama and reality TV as well as documentaries. So we had the BBC's The Monastery (five ordinary men try the contemplative life with an order of monks) or C4's Priest Idol (a country parish tries modern marketing techniques to reverse falling attendance)."

He argues that "the imperative to find new and, yes, entertaining ways to tackle religious issues continues."

Of 'Christianity: A History', he says: "The eight films in our series are each authored by a different commentator with a particular view or stake in the topic. For instance, the Independent's own Howard Jacobson rails magnificently against Christianity's denial of Jesus' Jewishness, and explores how this laid the ground for 2,000 years of anti-semitism."

Tomorrow night, Michael Portillo "investigates the political ramifications of Christianity's acceptance into the Roman Empire."

Jonathan Bartley, co-director of the religion and society thinktank Ekklesia is one of the guests on this programme, arguing that the Constantinian turn corrupted the church's relation to politics - and that there is now an opportunity to head in a new, liberating direction.

Portillo, however, seems to prefer a more thoroughly depoliticised faith.

Dear continues: "Next week, Robert Beckford embraces the British conversion to Christianity as the defining moment of our history. Rageh Omaar considers the taint of the Crusades on relations with Islam today, and Cherie Blair asks whether, after the horrors of the 20th-century, Christianity has a future in the 21st."

"What all the films have in common", he concludes, "is the idea that, believer or not, you can't deny the continuing influence of faith on almost every aspect of our world today – and that includes television."

There is also pressure to ensure fairness in broadcasting about religion, however. The BBC, which spends £9.8 million a year on it Religion and Ethics operation, according to a recent Freedom of Information request, has recently been castigated for misrepresenting the views of psychologist Dorothy Rowe - who is critical of religion, but was portrayed as sympathetic.

The BBC also remains under pressure to open its 'Thought for the Day' slot to non-believers - an issue highlighted by Ekklesia and others.

Religious programmes sometime reach a wide audience - as with the 4 million who watch 'Songs of Praise' (the only directly confessional show on BBC prime-time) and series like 'The Monastery'. But surveys have shown a growing disinterest in other sections of the overall terrestrial audience.

If you are in Britain and near a television on Sunday 18 January you can catch Ekklesia's Jonathan Bartley on BBC1's Big Questions at 10.00am discussing, among other things the inauguration of Barack Obama, and on Michael Portillo's Christianity: A History on Channel 4 at 7.00pm, looking at the impact of Constantine.

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