Tuesday, 21 December 2010

The Nativity, propaganda and equality

I watched the first episode of the BBC’s new mini series The Nativity last night. I thought it was a very promising start with the characterisation and pace of the narrative well judged. In checking out what others thought my attention was drnativityawn to this comment thread in the TES: Looking for equality from the BBC. The discussion is started in response to Ruth Gledhill’s review of The Nativity and this is the comment from cuteinpuce in full:
Over the next four nights, the BBC will be screening an adaptation of the nativity story written by Tony Jordan of Eastenders and Life on Mars fame. It has received some good reviews.  In The Times this morning, Ruth Gledhill writes:
"I have a confession to make.  After half a century of sitting through church Nativities, I am bored to tears with Mary and Joseph and plastic baby Jesus.  My heart sinks at the thought of those eternal carols yet another year.  So it was with a feeling of dread that I approached the BBC's Nativity.  It turns out to be one of the best written, cinematically magical tragi-comic religious dramas ever broadcast on television."
Don't hold back, Ruth.  And at mass yesterday, we were given a message from the Archbishop, who had been shown a screening along with other religious leaders.  He encouraged us to watch the series which he considered to be very impressive, even though it expanded on the Biblical version in places.
Well I'll be watching it for sure.  But Ruth Gledhill makes an interesting point at the end of her article.  "This is a powerful piece of Christian propaganda.  Now the BBC, if it is not to be open to accusations of pro-Christian bias, must do something of similar quality for Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism and even perhaps for secularists."
Seems fair to me.
Now I want to challenge a couple of claims and assumptions made in the final quote from Ruth about propaganda and equality.

My first concern is the claim that ‘this is a powerful piece of Christian propaganda’. What does Ruth mean by this? The definition of propaganda in my dictionary is ‘a form of communication that is aimed at influencing the attitude of a community toward some cause or position’. It is mostly used as a derogatory term, implying that information is not being objectively presented but is slanted and selectively employed. Now I’m not aware that the writer and producers of The Nativity set out to win people over to Christianity. My understanding is that the makers of the series set out to give a fresh telling of a very familiar story. Tony Jordan the writer explains:
The challenge for me was to retell a story that has been told countless times before, a story that everyone knows intimately, yet to do so in a way that will still surprise and move you, to see parts of the story you'd never seen before.
If Ruth can identify a statement from any of those involved in the project where they claim that their aim is to win people over to Christianity, then she may have a point. Trying to creatively retell a story while seeking to do justice to the original source documents, the gospels of Matthew and Luke, is not propaganda.

It may be possible to claim that the original story is propaganda; the gospels telling the story in a way to elicit a favourable response and this would be a reasonable comment, except the gospel writers never disguise their intention. Both Matthew and Luke’s gospels clearly set out to present the birth of Jesus as the fulfilment of Israel’s Messianic expectation. What is interesting is that the two birth narratives, while containing some of the same features, give very different accounts of the birth (Doug Chaplin has some interesting comments about this). If the gospels in general, and the birth narratives in particular, were a work of propaganda then surely the early church would have harmonised the accounts and removed any sense of them being two very distinct accounts? Philip Pullman, certainly no Christian apologist, acknowledges that the lack of a unified narrative in the gospels mitigates against them being dismissed as mere propaganda.

I can only assume that what Ruth means by the term propaganda is that The Nativity presents the story of the birth of Christ in a sympathetic rather than critical light. If the BBC had commissioned a programme that ignored the Biblical material and Christian tradition and simply dismissed the story as a made up fairy tale, then would that be propaganda? What if the BBC had set out to make a programme that suggested that Mary was a young girl raped by a Roman soldier, or a documentary that drew only on the work of the most sceptical of Biblical scholars? Would that be propaganda?

The second comment of Ruth’s that I am uneasy with is ‘Now the BBC, if it is not to be open to accusations of pro-Christian bias, must do something of similar quality for Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism and even perhaps for secularists’.

I have to confess I don’t understand what Ruth is saying here. Does she mean that every time one belief system is the subject of a well made programme, then all others (including secularism) have to be given the same treatment by the BBC? What sort of distorted understanding of equality is that? Is it bias to retell the story that lies at the heart of the Christmas season well? Presumably if a broadcaster makes a programme that is negative and hostile to Christianity then the same treatment needs to be meted out to all the others. There have been plenty of programmes seeking to debunk the life of Christ and the veracity of the Biblical witness, but I didn’t hear a call from Ruth for the same treatment of other faiths. I trust Ruth is demanding the same policy from News International. Have her employers appointed someone to add up the number of column inches given over to coverage of each religion and secularism and is there a person to check the balance of positive to negative stories about each?

Channel 4 ran an excellent programme on The Qur’an in 2008. I don’t recall Ruth demanding a similar treatment of the Bible or the sacred texts of the other major religions. When the BBC ran a plethora of programmes celebrating the bicentennial of Charles Darwin I didn’t hear suggestions of propaganda.

I seek to treat my children equally, that means in a fair and balanced manner. That doesn’t mean that they get exactly the same things, that would be inappropriate and an immature understanding about what equality means. I would hope the same understanding of equality is applied by our broadcasters.

Let’s not forget that the BBC’s head of religion is a Muslim. He and the BBC should be congratulated for delivering such a high quality and well received production.


NigelT said...

Well, said, Phil!

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Thanks, Phil, for a sensible take on what was originally a very silly, even childish comment, amazingly, by RG (whose knowledge and judgment I greatly respect in principle - did a lunatic steal her word processor?).

The BBC does in fact produce output for all seasons. When it produced, for example, an excellent radio version of the Mahabharata, or the Quran programme to which you allude, we all enjoyed them greatly as part of the world's cultural heritage.