Tonight was another one of Channel 4’s periodic crazy Christian nights, this time a documentary in the Dispatches thread related to the Human Fertilisation and Embryo Bill that is currently working it’s way through parliament. Although at it’s heart the documentary was trying to make an important point about the growing influence of fundamentalist Christian movements within the establishment, it did inter-cut the segments on those groups with the more obviously nutty elements, including Stephen Green and Christian Voice. Whilst that did give the opportunity for the programme to ask the more establishment participants if they agreed with what Stephen Green was saying, including some of the sequences of both him and the driving instructor from Bristol certainly seemed to be as much for the entertainment value as anything else.
The general way that the film handled the participants was much the way that these programmes often go, which is with an element of apparent journalistic disconnection – essentially waiting for the participants to do something that would make good TV. Stephen Green served up one moment pretty early on. The documentary team filmed him on some of his pickets outside performances of Jerry Springer: The Opera, and Stephen Green seemed to be decidedly unpredictable, veering from being happy to have the cameras around and co-operating, to wanting the cameras to go away and stop filming. Then during prayers outside the final performance in Brighton, at a point when he is being co-operative, a seagull flying over him relieves itself over his shoulder whilst the crew is filming, resulting in Green declaring that the seagull is a message from God telling him not to co-operate. Of course considering that they were praying for the financial ruin of the company behind Jerry Springer: The Opera you could argue that it is a message from God against that, or alternatively that it is all just pure chance and not God controlling the bodily functions of a seagull at all!
Alongside this the programme also found a born again Christian from Bristol. A twenty-nine year old driving instructor, the programme highlighted the fact that he lived alone, and was a virgin. Again seeming to head down the crazy Christians line. We also got to see the private school run by his Church which is teaching it’s children creationism – something again that Channel 4 has covered before.
What tends to unite these elements is that more often than not these elements are extreme enough that they aren’t overly taken seriously. Whilst Stephen Green did garner a good deal of publicity in the early stages of the Jerry Springer: The Opera furore, he has largely been sidelined again, indeed much of his footage either showed him picketing gay rights events on his own, or with small groups. Whilst his opinions are extreme (he describes Islam as being the work of Satan at one point), there is at least the solace that these are apparently small groups.
What was much more interesting and perhaps concerning about the programme though was the third participant, Andrea Williams from the Lawyers Christian Fellowship, who is significantly more media savvy. Whilst the programme showed Stephen Green and relatively small groups, it showed Andrea, who admitted to sharing the same views as Stephen Green – although rephrased in less provocative language – handling much bigger demonstrations, and moving amongst some pretty well known politicians. Unlike some of the other participants she is well aware what plays negatively in the wider media, so the hellfire and brimstone preacher at the demonstration was moved away, she was careful to ensure that BNP members hanging around on the periphery of the demonstration were moved away, and when one of the participants in the demonstration started verbally attacking a pro-choice campaigner it was the demonstrator who she had moved.
That’s not to say that the documentary didn’t corner her on a couple of occasions – for example when the interviewer throws in a question about fossils and the age of the Earth she quickly flounders and calls a halt. Similarly when she is interviewed alongside Conservative MPNadine Dorries, who she has been helping draft the upcoming abortion amendment, and the interviewer asks Nadine whether they have discussed some of Andrea’s other beliefs – at which point he asks Andrea her opinion of Islam – after starting to answer Andrea then thinks better of it and turns off her microphone and refuses to say anything else. At another point in the programme, the documentary crew film a presentation given about Islam in Nigeria to a group of Christians which subsequently is partially retracted.
That essentially is the key message of the programme, that in much the same way as they have done for a number of years in the US, fundamentalist Christians are starting to use the courts, and to wield influence in parliament to move their agenda forward. Also in much the same way as has occurred across the pond they are aware of what plays badly in the public perception and are steering around it, and as such, are becoming a very vocal and powerful small minority having a comparatively large influence compared to their size.
The problem of course is that as the fundamentalist wing of Christianity makes more of this sort of well targeted and well managed noise, the broad range of opinions across the non-fundamentalist Christians gets lost, and the small minority of fundamentalists end up being taken as speaking for the whole, so for example with the current bill, whilst in reality there is a broad range of Christian opinion, only one Christian voice seems to be being heard.
Tonight, having decided that rather than watch episode by episode, we’d watch in one go, we sat down to watch the whole of The Passion, the BBC and HBO co-production that aired in the UK in four episodes over Holy Week. (As an aside, the slightly odd one hour, thirty minutes, one hour, thirty minutes running times for the four episodes, plus the fact that only the one hour episode had a recap before the opening credits does seem to imply that the serial was shown as two episodes elsewhere – anyone having seen it on HBO care to confirm?)
My first thoughts having watched it all the way through are firstly the superb production values. The sets and locations looked fantastic, this was a grimy, dusty and rough portrayal of first century Jerusalem. A couple of friends have commented that the mix of accents was a bit off-putting – particularly James Nesbitt as Pilate – certainly I know out of place accents can be distracting, the Visual Bible Gospel of Matthew being one that bugs me when I watch it. About the only way around it is to take the Mel Gibson route and have everyone speaking in original languages, but then that produces it’s own set of problems too. I didn’t have too much of a problem with this production.
The other significant thing I noted was that although this drew on the bible sources, it really wasn’t true to any of the Gospels – it was very much a pick-and-mix, pulling passages and teaching from other places in the Gospels into the final week, and part using other passages to suit the story-line. As an example of the first kind of change, Jesus’ statement about it being easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle that a rich man enter the Kingdom of Heaven which occurs in the Gospels before the events depicted in the programme is placed within scenes of Jesus teaching in the temple. In terms of the second example, in the foot washing scene during the Last Supper, the first part with Peter refusing to let Jesus wash his feet is there, but his later request that Jesus wash his head and his hands also is not. Moving forward to the resurrection appearances, the point where Jesus asks Peter if he loves him is relocated to Jerusalem, and also Jesus only asks the question once – in the Gospel it is asked three times, paralleling Peter’s three denials – having said that, Peter denies Jesus three times in one conversation rather than the three separate denials mentioned in the Gospels. That scene also includes Jesus statement that in the Gospels is made to Thomas instead being made to Peter.
The programme was quite clearly going for realistic, well-rounded characterisations, so Pilate, Caiaphas and Judas are not presented in the black and white, way that they often can be. Pilate comes over as someone trying to keep an unwilling populous subdued – keen to please his superiors back in Rome, but equally aware that he is being manipulated by the Jewish Temple hierarchy, and being backed into a corner by local politics. Caiaphas again is presented as someone with mixed motives, primarily trying to maintain the status quo, and remove a trouble maker. Judas also is presented as a troubled soul, who on several occasions tries to get Jesus to change his mind. It is made clear that Jesus knows who his betrayer will be, but also that Jesus forgives him, and knows that it is a part that has to be played – at one point crying for Judas and at another saying that there were places in heaven for all his disciples, even his betrayer. The rounded characterisations not surprisingly have led to criticism – for example the preview in the Independent highlights the comments of Stephen Green of Christian Voice.
Amongst the other characters, Mary Magdalene is shown as a close confidante of Jesus, and clearly understanding much more of what is going on. Her love for Jesus is particularly highlighted when Jesus and his followers leave the Last Supper, and Jesus stays back to talk to her – certainly there are hints of a sexual tension between the two, most potently in this scene.
The portrayal of Jesus is also very human – definitely none of the other worldliness of the Robert Powell portrayal in Jesus of Nazareth. In terms of style it is a lot closer to the Henry Ian Cusick in the Gospel of John movie. This Jesus is very much the kind of peasant, itinerant preacher that he was, speaking language that the people understand, and someone who is fundamentally unacceptable to the temple authorities in Jerusalem because of who he is as much as what he is saying. Joseph Mawle’sJesus seems primarily focused on his works of compassion, and largely disinterested in the high powered political manoeuvres of Caiaphas. Caiaphas is convinced that by removing Jesus he can save his country from a total Roman take-over – Jesus is concerned with saving the people. In particular Jesus comes across as very human as he struggles with what he must do. In the garden in conversation with his disciples that he leaves open the option that he might decide to leave, something they have advised him to do on several occasions. Later he is seen struggling mentally as he is put in a prison cell and during the trial before the Temple elders and Pilate he seems to almost change tactics as the situation changes, note the points where he is silent, and when he answers questions.
Is he the Son of God, or as is said during the programme someone who believes that he is the Son of God. Certainly there are no miracles shown – although Jesus visits the unclean, and is shown caring for them, he isn’t shown healing them. It is clear from his discussion with his mother Mary that he is only her son, but there is nothing to suggest some sort of miraculous conception – what she says could be taken several ways. When Jesus is arrested you see one of the disciples cutting off someone’s ear, and Jesus berating them, but no miracle healing. You don’t get a Mel Gibson style resurrection either – the guards on the tomb go off to get some food and come back to find the tomb empty. The person who Mary meets at the tomb that she recognises as Jesus is played by another actor, and she herself tells the disciples that it didn’t look like him – there is a definite question mark over whether this is just Mary going mad. The same thing happens on the road to Emmaus – it is a different actor, but this time after he breaks bread and uses the words that Jesus has used, the camera cuts back and there is a brief glimpse of Jesus, but is this just us being shown what they are seeing. The final two appearances, to all the disciples, and finally to Peter are less ambiguous, and are clearly Jesus, but equally you don’t have any of the elements of the appearances where you see his wounds, indeed the Jesus who appears seems to have no indication of wounds at all. It seems very much as though any mystical or fantastical elements have been stripped back, so at the beginning we are left to decide whether Jesus is fulfilling prophecy or using it for his ride into Jerusalem. Right at the end Jesus walks away into a crowd – there is no ascension. Quite what the programme is saying about the resurrection I am sure is being left deliberately ambiguous – it is up to the viewer.
So overall, I thought it was a good production – enough elements of drama to keep a casual viewer interested. Nothing massively controversial to annoy Christians – except perhaps those who want two-dimensional comic-strip villains rather that the more rounded characters we got. The resurrection appearances in particular will I’m sure give Christian commentators a good deal of discussion – if you read the biblical accounts of Mary Magdalene at the tomb, and the road to Emmaus, they do clearly say that Jesus wasn’t initially recognised – often shown on film by Jesus face being hidden – but then in the Bible the unrecognised Jesus walks with his disciples and eats part of the meal with them before he is recognised, so what is shown is accurate to what is written – definitely food for discussion.
If you missed it, or perhaps want to see it again, the DVD will be available next month.
I’ve grumbled before about Christian Voice, the organisation probably best known nationally for their campaigns against Jerry Springer: The Opera, that included publishing personal contact details for BBC executives, and their associated arm twisting of Maggie’s Cancer Centres, and the way that following the Springer complaints, the BBC have given significant airtime to the organisation. Quite often Stephen Green has been included in panel discussions as the sole Christian, and will be portrayed as giving the ‘Christian opinion’.
What always bugs me about these appearances, is that it totally fails to acknowledge that there is a breadth of Christian opinion on many topics, and also runs the risk of mainstream Christianity being associated with a number of the organisations more hard-line, and in many cases offensive campaigns and press releases, such as this release from last year release in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, stating that it was a judgement on the city of New Orleans.
It is a matter of some regret that â€¦ the BBC should choose to undermine the reputation of Question Time by giving a platform to a small, self-selecting group distinguished mainly by its absurd claim to represent Christians in this country.
Anyway, as a result of the complaints over Question Time, the BBC reviewed their policies, and since then I haven’t seen Stephen Green on the BBC.
That was until this morning. Heaven and Earth, the BBC’s Sunday morning religion and ethics show were doing a special programme from Edinburgh Fringe, which this year has a high proportion of religious content. As a result the topic of religion and comedy was up for discussion.
The first person they introduced was comedian Ed Byrne, who describes himself as atheist – although it is worth noting that the BBC had originally invited the altogether more controversial Jim Jeffries, but as reported in the Independent and on Mediawatch, Stephen Green refused to appear with him. Then we had Stephen Green. Before I could get really annoyed by it, they introduced the other two panellists were introduced, Larry Jay Tish, a Jewish comedian, and Canon Robin Gamble from Manchester Cathedral. At this point things started to look a bit better – at least they are now not bringing Stephen Green on as the sole representative of Christianity.
Despite the somewhat less controversial replacement comedian, the discussion still did not exactly go Stephen Green’s way. It started with Ed Byrne making the point that many comedians use religion in their acts because it is a concept that many in the audience would understand, but that is controversial – many wanting to do something controversial in order to attract publicity – indeed going back to the Springer episode, the programme got a much higher audience than could have been expected thanks to the Christian Voice publicity. However Stephen Green fairly swiftly got on to the topic of judgement. This produced and interesting reaction from Ed Byrne who commented on the content of the Christian Voice website and questioned how Christian it actually was. Several panellists, including the Canon from Manchester raised the question of whether with war in the Middle East, and all over the world, God would really be worried about a few jokes? The Canon also made the point that if comedians are making jokes about Christianity, it is a positive thing because it keeps religion in the public consciousness.
All in all I thought it was a pretty good discussion, and the Canon from Manchester was a good representative of a more mainstream Christian opinion, providing a strong counterpoint to Christian Voice. Whilst obviously I’d prefer if the BBC stuck to their decision to not include him at all, at least by providing another Christian more obviously representative of mainstream opinion, it stops the misunderstanding that Stephen Green represents all Christians.
“Following a review of the activities of Christian Voice, we wish to give you notice that we require you to close your account with the Co-operative Bank plc. It has come to our attention that Christian Voice is engaged in discriminatory pronouncements, based on the grounds of sexual orientation. This public stance is incompatible with the position of the Co-operative Bank, which publicly supports diversity, in all its forms, for our staff, customers and other stakeholders.”
Christian Voice is now calling on the bank to ask all other Christian, Muslim and Jewish organisations to withdraw for the same reason, and calling on Christians to boycott the bank. They describe the action as being by “politically correct bully boys”, which does strike me as somewhat hypocritical following what they did to the Maggies centres earlier in the year!
It is important to realise at this point that however Stephen Green tries to spin it, the Co-Op are very clear over why they took the action, it is not for religious reasons, but purely on grounds of diversity:
“They are targeting one group of society in a hateful manner. The bank believes in respect for all sectors of society and its approach to Christian Voice is based purely on the issue of diversity and not on the grounds of religion.”
The bank is being very clear not to make a statement about the religious belief, but on the way that Christian Voice act on that belief. Indeed as Christian Voice themselves say, many religious groups bank with them based on their ethical stance. Their objection is on the basis of the active targeting of gays that the organisation carries out. (The Thinking Anglicans site explores this further.) This is in some ways a classic example of the conflict between ethics and religion with which the Church continues to wrestle, a conflict that is present within the gospels in resolving the inclusivity of Jesus against the exclusivity practiced by the Jewish authorities in his time.
Anyway, going back to the decision, it is worth noting that whilst Christian Voice are correct in stating that homophobia is not explicitly stated within the banks ethical policy, the last line reads:
On occasion, we will make decisions on specific business, involving ethical issues not included in our Ethical Policy.
It also states elsewhere that controversial decisions such as this, where the case is not clear cut, will be passed to a special committee for discussion before the decision is made.
In my opinion, whatever you think of Christian Voice, the bank is entirely within it’s rights to do business with whom it wants. The ethical policy of the bank is created from customer feedback and voted on by the customers on a regular basis, and certainly the majority of opinion I have heard on this decision so far has backed the stance taken by the bank. Whilst there may be some who will close their accounts over it, I suspect many people will either see it as a good move, or not be bothered at all.
Thoughts from, and the lives of a Canadian and a Brit living in the UK.