AS I write this, the 1990 Reith Lectures series has just reached its conclusion. Broadcast on Radio 4 on Wednesday evenings through November and December, this year's lectures were given by Rabbi Dr Jonathan Sacks, and had the title the Persistence of Faith: Religion and Ethics in a Secular Society.
Dr Sacks made a fine job of the lectures. His delivery was excellent, and the content combined learnedness with liveliness, enhanced by his felicitously elegant turn of phrase — "there is a Godshaped hole in our ozone layer", for example.
To summarise Dr Sacks very crudely, the upshot of his talks was that reports of religion's death have been greatly exaggerated. We may easily point to examples of our own abandonment to the forces of meterialism and the cult of the individual, but if we scratch beneath the surface we find that the strongest and most abiding of our convictions are derived not from personal need or greed, but from the sense, lying at the heart of the religious experience.
As 1 listened to the Reith Lectures, I found myself musing on the persistence of faith in the bioadcast media, and on the challenges faced in this small but significant area of modern life. Faith persists, most certainly, on television and radio. Considering whether or not one could describe the UK as a post-religious society, Dr Sacks imagined someone landing in the country for the first time and trying to answer the question from the available evidence. This putative Martian would see numerous signs: religious buildings, bishops in the House of Lords, shops shut on Sundays — but also tiny congregations in the huge cathedrals, far larger crowds watching football matches.
The same Martian, basing his or her analysis on a sample of radio or television programmes, would face a similar confusion. Faith persists in the broadcast media, and not just in the allotted `Godslots'. But the quality of religious coverage is such that it is a bit like the cathedral-turned-museum. The lights are on but there's no one home.
This is not say that there is no good religious broadcasting to be found. There is. But there is still too great a tendency for broadcasters to treat religion and religious' subjects with kid gloves — granting special favours that don't do any good because they marginalise religion and downgrade it.
Things that really matter in our national life are characteristically pulled to pieces on radio and television. Politician caught out? Just listen to Brian Redhead going in for the kill. But religion and its representatives don't usually get this rough treatment.
Of course there is room for cosiness — Harry Secombe, Thora Hurd — and fctr unalloyed praise where due when the church has achieved great things in the relief of poverty, for example. But elsewhere, greater rigour should be applied to religious subjects.
For instance, most of the people who do Thought for The Day on Radio 4's Today programme are lousy writers and speakers and wouldn't have been let anywhere near a microphone were it not for their religious credentials. So, get rid of them and only use people who are good broadcasters.
Religious documentarI programme makers: don't rely on the worthiness of your subject matter to maintain interest — it won't. Interviewers: don't defer to church leaders — pursue them hard, ask them difficult questions, try to catch them out.
Being cruel will be kind because it's only by being treated as part of the vital life of the nation that religion will get the chance to show that, as Dr Sacks demonstrated in his Reith Lectures, this is what it is.