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Reality shows: Archbishop on religious broadcasting

Tuesday 7th May 2013

In this article for the Radio Times, Archbishop Justin writes that broadcast media can give viewers an opportunity to appreciate the rich and fascinating history of faith, and 'help us to see the people around us as they really are

Pilgrims crossing the beach in Northumberland on Good FridayPilgrims on the annual Good Friday Northern Cross pilgrimage from Beal on the Northumberland mainland across to Lindisfarne, Holy Island. 29 March 2013. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/Guardian

Over the past decade, a little English word has become synonymous with broadcasting that puts ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances: ‘reality’. In this context, reality can often mean people putting their lives on hold, flying off to a desert island, and taking part in bewildering challenges.

But there is another kind of reality broadcasting – one which I think delves far deeper into the questions of who we are, what we are, and why we are. This is the kind of radio and television rightly celebrated by the Sandford St Martins awards.

It can sometimes seem hard to remember these days, but we are more than just material beings: we are also spiritual beings. Religious broadcasting can, without embarrassment or spectacle, tackle the big stuff in life: death, love, fear, forgiveness, doubt, conviction, and how we relate to one another as human beings.

The life of Jesus involved all these things – it was intensely real. His life was about immersing Himself in the suffering and despair of others, and ultimately about taking that agony upon himself on our behalf.

Our lives, too, are intensely real. And they can become even more so when we accept the challenge of living religiously. While illustrating this in a short piece of media is a heroic task, it seems one that many broadcasters have proved themselves up to this year.

That much is clear in shows such as Sister Wendy Beckett’s history of Christian art, which also becomes her own deeply personal and moving story of living with God.

Or the extraordinary BBC Radio Wales production ‘Get me to Gethsemane’, which tells the story of Gauri Taylor-Nayar living out her dying husband wishes for her by conducting her Methodist choir as a focus after his death. The programme’s moving climax comes when she realises what Jesus’ anguished prayers at Gethsemane had to teach about the Resurrection.

These are reality shows – because these are our realities.

While exploring the intimacy of our human experience, religious broadcasting – at its best – does something else equally important: it teaches us about each other.

Most people – in the UK and around the world – have some kind of religious belief, and certainly some form of cultural religious inheritance. In a multicultural society like ours, religious literacy is something whose importance only continues to grow.

For adults over a certain age, who have received little in the way of religious education at school – especially of an inter-faith variety – religious broadcasting is likely to be their best guide to the different faiths not just of the people they see on the evening news, but of the people they meet at the school gates, or queue next to at the post office.

Some people these days firmly believe that faith and religious life should be kept behind closed doors. But if broadcasters were also to adopt the view that religion is something separate and private, rather than stitched into our public life, then we could set off down a very dangerous road indeed. We would be cultivating ignorance where what we need is insight, and prejudice where we most badly need open minds. We live in an increasingly multicultural society. Knowing, understanding and celebrating the faiths of our neighbours will help us all to flourish.

For this reason, it’s essential that we support broadcasting which teaches us about those around us. The marvellous portrait of Manchester’s Jewish community in ITV’s ‘Strictly Kosher’ is one example of how the media can help us to see the people around us as they really are. Likewise, Channel Four’s ‘Islam: The Untold Story’ gave viewers an opportunity to appreciate the rich and fascinating history of the Muslim faith.

Telling stories about ourselves and others, in a way that celebrates the full scope of what it means to be human: that for me is what makes a reality show. 

© Justin Welby

This article was first published in the Radio Times on 7 May 2013. Read the article on the Radio Times website 


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