Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Shalts and Shan’ts

Caught up with the third programme in Channel 4’s series The Bible: A History on the Ten Commandments. I was interested to see what issues were covered as I am just finishing ploughing my way through the book of Exodus. The episode was presented by Ann Widdecombe and maintained the high production standard of the series; plenty of photogenic locations and an interesting mix of characters. The format began with a retelling of the Exodus account of Moses and the giving of the Decalogue on Mount Sinai, before going on to explore the place of the Commandments in Jewish life, in the development of Christianity and in English history and law. 10 commandments

All very straight forward except that at various points the problem of using well known personalities as presenters for the programmes was clearly exposed. Widdecombe has a passion for the Ten Commandments and believes that a society is better off with them than without them. However, Widdecombe is no theologian and at various points she seemed to have real problems in grasping some of the basic insights and questions of Biblical scholarship. The fundamentals of source criticism and Biblical archaeology seemed to take her by surprise; she struggled to maintain her belief that everything happened exactly as recorded in the Pentateuch and was authored by Moses. I’m not quite sure how Moses wrote Deuteronomy 34 which gives an account of his own death.

At one point in the programme Widdecombe briefly interviewed Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry on their attitudes towards the Ten Commandments. Unsurprisingly both men were vehemently hostile and Widdecombe seemed to lack either the intellectual capacity or the debating skills to take on their arguments. A good example was Fry’s argument when he demanded to know why God had not banned slavery. Exodus 21 has quite a bit to say about slavery and some of it very radical in an Ancient Near East context but Widdicombe seemed unaware of this. At another point Fry challenged the tenth command about covetousness, suggesting it creates little more than a thought crime; I’m not sure the youngster mugged for his trainers or mobile phone would agree with him. For much of these snippets (they didn’t last very long as Hitchens flounced out) Widdecombe sat open mouthed as if she just couldn’t believe what her opponents were saying and struggled to marshal counter arguments.

Widdecombe was more effective in highlighting how society is impoverished through its rejection of the Ten Commandments. She goes on to suggest that we ‘would have happier, more fulfilled lives today if we still followed biblical law’ and this is where the programme concluded. I don’t agree with her statement about biblical law given the content of some of the other 613 commands contained in the Law of Moses. Though the 613 commands were mentioned, Widdecombe didn’t explore why she is happy to accept some commands and to ignore others, including the food laws which were featured in the programme.

stephen fry Strangely, because I’ve never been a fan, I found myself warming to Widdecombe as someone who does have a genuine concern for the moral wellbeing of people and her faith and passion are evident throughout the programme. There was one segment where she explored the issue of assisted dying that was sensitively handled and quite moving. Although I felt she didn’t hold her own against Hitchens and Fry, I nevertheless found myself siding with Widdecombe in their encounters. There is something deeply irritating about the preening and posturing of the ‘new atheists’, whose arrogance seeps through in their smug disdain for anyone stupid enough to believe in God. This is becoming a regular feature of the series.

Two reviews of the programme that are well worth a read are by +Alan Wilson who considers the programme in the wider context of religious broadcasting and Doug Chaplin who is more critical than I have been of Miss Widdecombe.


AliceE said...

Phil, I;m enjoying this series and agree with your summary of Anne's slightly gobsmacked interview technique. It was an interesting contrast between the previous programme where Howard wotsit had interviewed the same theologian from Exeter University and had really got some great nuggets of wisdom. Anne clearly had her own opinions and wouldn't be swayed, but she did seem unprepared. Looking forward to this week's episode on the women and also Robert Beckford and Gerry Adams contributions.
Also, directed Maldon and Dengie Synod towards you last night re: Shape course...!

Philip Ritchie said...

Hi Alice, many thanks for the comment and I'm also looking forward to the rest of the series. Thanks for mentioning Shape, the invitations are beginning to come in:-)