Shaping debate on religion in public life.

Broken, Apologetics and Faith in the Media

29 Mar 2018

Rosie Dawson reflects on Christian apologetics in the media as she considers a recent publication by Elaine Graham.

The brilliant Jimmy McGovern drama Broken was yesterday shortlisted for the Radio Times Reader award in collaboration with the Sandford St Martin Trust, which recognises and celebrates the best programming about faith, belief and ethics. Sean Bean plays Father Michael Kerrigan, a Liverpool priest, doing his best and often failing to accompany parishioners in their struggles – against poverty, addictive betting machines, corrupt police – all the while fighting the personal demons arising from childhood abuse and his own past mistreatment of two women in his life.

We see him in private moments with his Confessor and with individual parishioners where he lights a candle to remind them that Christ is with them. But it is the public performance of the Mass around which every programme pivots and which provides the redemptive finale for the series. I watched the last episode with my lap top open and there were people weeping all over my Facebook page.

I was reminded of this drama as I read Professor Elaine Graham’s book Apologetics without Apology (published by Wipf and Stock) in which she argues that a method of Christian apologetics which is primarily performative and sacramental is best suited for our time.

The society she describes is one familiar to those of us in religious journalism; one where fewer and fewer people participate in organised religion, and where religion is frequently seen as provocative and divisive – but also a society in which faith and religious identity is held ever more tenaciously (often defensively) by those to whom it does matter.

This world presents the religious broadcaster with perennial questions and dilemmas. How does public service broadcasting fulfil its duty to reflect the beliefs and practices of all sections of society? What does balance and fairness mean in these situations? Does the promulgation of one view necessarily require the promulgation of the opposite – and within what time frame? How do we meet the needs of general audiences who need schooling in the basic language of faith without patronising those who understand every nuance of creed and behaviour in the groups within their own tradition?

One of the key arguments of Elaine’s book is that apologetics has to get away from the idea that religion is solely or primarily about propositional belief. There are plenty of religious and anti-religious people who appear to think that this is the case, and the media hasn’t always helped. A soundbite news culture, the desire for clear, oppositional argument, as well sometimes the appetite for entertaining shouting matches which illuminate no-one – these are the ready-meal staples of our media diet alongside, thankfully, more considered long-form programming and long-reads.

Elaine talks about beginning the task of apologetics in autobiography. The media has always had an important role in enabling people to tell their stories. These stories often communicate what “I believe” actually means in the lived experience of individuals. Students of Greek and Latin know that the words we translate as belief have much richer reserves of meaning than our language commonly suggests; “I commit to” would be a far better rendering. Observing the lives and hearing the stories of people of faith shows us what they believe, what they commit to in terms of behaviour and action. Some of that may confound assumptions about the relationship between assent to certain beliefs and actual behaviour.

The work of social scientists is important in shedding light on the complexities of lived religion, and challenging the assumptions about what religion is and means. Not long ago I met Anna Strhan who has conducted ethnographic research into conservative evangelical churches in London. As you might expect, her respondents took the view that homosexual relationships are contrary to God’s desire and purposes. But this did not necessarily translate negatively in terms of interactions with neighbours, decisions about who their children had playdates with, even their decisions about close friendships.

Elaine speaks of apologetics as “performative religion.” The space social media has opened up in society and which is literally performative has a huge role to play in the presentation of religion as it is lived. I was very struck by social media performances in the wake of last year’s atrocities and tragedies. After the Manchester bomb a Muslim man stood blindfolded outside Marks and Spencer on Market street, his arms held open to receive the embraces of passers-by. Many of those responding at the crisis centres around Grenfell Tower wore the symbols of their faith – turbans, crosses, hijabs – not self-consciously as shouting badges of identity but as marks of our diverse and compassionate humanity. What Elaine Graham described in her book as “the practice of faith and exercise of citizenship” – actions but more than actions, actions with a sacramental quality, speaking about “what matters to us, what we hope for, how we live.”

But while apologetics may shift away from an emphasis on propositional statements of belief, I nevertheless think it remains important that those for whom religion is significant speak about their faith rather than simply practice it. People of faith need to say what it is that they do believe and to demonstrate the grounds for that belief. If they don’t then they vacate online and media spaces for those who reduce faith to a set of beliefs and set about it accordingly. Far worse, they surrender it to those who speak of their faith in a language that is hateful and exclusive and comes to dominate the wider narrative about what faith is about.

So – back to Jimmy McGovern’s Broken, each episode telling a story of the priest’s encounter with people which pulls you in, has you on the edge of your seat and makes you care. Each story of his parishioners colliding with another – the particular and rehearsed story of the Eucharist.

But what is it that Father Kerrigan’s celebration of the Mass adds to the drama? I asked a friend.

“Hope,” she said.

“Even if he’s clinging on by his fingernails?”

“Maybe that’s all any of us can ever do,” she replied.

You can vote in the Sandford St Martin Radio Times Reader Awards here.

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