Saturday, April 15, 2006

Jesus, Recovered

Time was, I suppose, when one might have expected there to be a church service televised on the morning of the Good Friday Bank Holiday; a cinematic interpretation of the Gospels in the afternoon. No more. More evidence – if evidence were needed – of a sad decline of the place of Christian faith in the life of the nation, to be lamented? Not at all! Yesterday evening I witnessed the best religious broadcasting I can recall seeing.

First up, EastEnders. Soap World – home of comically ineffective vicars and platitude-spouting or judgemental stereotype-Christians – is an unlikely place to find a serious exploration of Jesus of Nazareth and his impact on history. But Jesus shone through last night’s episode of EastEnders: from regulars in the Queen Vic debating the Synoptic Problem, and whether the crucifixion or the resurrection had the greater theological significance, over their pints; to someone who “ain’t religious” freely admitting to turning to the Bible for support in the past (“we all turn to something in hard times”); to general talk of Christian observance; to one character praying out loud with the father of a missing boy for his safe return…

In one sense, it was quite artificial: it was scripted by a team of writers, clearly as a marking of Good Friday, and the volume/range of discussion was high. But it was very well written – taking the matters seriously, but not piously – and was, therefore, believable – which is a mark of good Soap writing, even though the genre calls for exaggerated storylines. In reflecting Real Life, the scriptwriters felt it was appropriate to mark Good Friday in an up-front way; not segregated into church, but in the pub and on Albert Square. Jesus liberated, recovered for the man and woman in the street.

Cue another Albert Square: this time, not in the fictional London borough of Walford, but in the very real centre of Manchester. Last night saw The Manchester Passion, televised live 9:00-10:00pm (and repeated 11:00pm-12:00am – we watched it then, and it was like being at an Easter Vigil). A massive light-box (weighing half a ton) in the shape of a cross was processed through several central Manchester neighbourhoods, followed by a large crowd, moving towards the Square. Approaching the Square from the other direction, a cast of actors interpreted the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ final hours through the locations of Manchester’s city-centre, and the music of its bands. Not religious music: top-40 chart music; only one song referencing Jesus at all: The Stone Roses’ “I Am The Resurrection” – the verses used brilliantly to portray Peter’s denial; the chorus saved for the very end of the night…In the crowd, Christians yes: but also Muslims, there to honour Jesus as prophet; those of other faiths; and those who adhere to no organised religion but for whom spirituality is important…

I loved it. It asked hard questions of the crowd: was Judas the victim of circumstances? Aren’t we all just victims of circumstance? Or…? And, This is the 21st century and things are different now: if the Messiah appeared today, we wouldn’t murder him. Would we?...And it turned-on-its-head the idea of Marches for Jesus or Walks of Witness: rather than a group of Christians making an awkward and somewhat aggressive Statement to the wider community and then retreating behind the safety of the church walls again, here is the wider community saying We want to honour Jesus, and inviting the Church to join in. In reflecting Real Life, the scriptwriters felt it was appropriate to mark Good Friday in an up-front way; not segregated into church, but in the music and venues of every day. Jesus liberated, recovered for the man and woman in the street.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting a stereotyped Relativism: that every interpretation of, and response to, Jesus carries equal validity; or that there is only My (individual) Truth and Your (individual) Truth. Moreover, I don’t think that is what either programme was about. But I am suggesting that Jesus – as mediator between humanity and God – still has perceived significance for the general population of England; perhaps, even, greater significance than he has been accorded for the previous several generations. And I’d also suggest that if the Church no longer enjoys a privileged position – as mediator between humanity and Jesus – then that is not a bad thing. Jesus does not belong to the Church. He never belonged to the Church. And there is evidence – if evidence were needed – to suggest that he is being recovered…

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