Where is God on TV?

Nick Baines, the Bishop of Leeds, discusses the diminishing role of faith on television, and questions why religious programming should only be limited to Easter

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So, it’s Easter again. And there’s a programme about Judas on the telly.

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When Bob Dylan decided to go electric some of his fans thought he had sold out. The infamous sound of a bloke in the audience shouting “Judas” said it all – one name pregnant with a hundred accusations.

I feel a bit sorry for Judas. He’s not just another one of those characters in the well-known story of the crucifixion of Jesus; rather, he has gone down in history as the ultimate traitor, the cheap and nasty greed-merchant who sells his friend and his soul for a few quid. I wonder what his mother thought.

Well, it’s a bit more complicated than that. Judas had invested himself in the revolutionary leadership of Jesus of Nazareth… only to find himself let down. Trying to force the hand of the Messiah didn’t work and, instead of provoking the ultimate uprising against Roman rule, the glorious leader simply let himself get nailed without resistance. No wonder Judas got upset.

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I guess it’s up to the observer to decide what was really going on with Judas – whether he is a traitor or a scapegoat. Whatever conclusion you draw, he’s had a lousy press. Just call someone by his name…

It’s actually all about betrayal. And faith. And disappointment. And hope and meaning and living and dying. All the stuff of life as we all know it, in every age and every culture.

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that the case for or against Judas should be reopened on Good Friday. After all, what better opportunity can there be for taking a fresh look at a religious story than hanging it on an Easter peg?

That’s fine in itself. But, it begs the question why such programming shouldn’t be scheduled at other times of the year. Why lock “faith” stuff into the predictable slots when “people who like that sort of thing” can be indulged for an hour or so? If sport and politics, economics and science can be exposed to the searching eye of the camera and the probing ear of the microphone throughout the year, shouldn’t religion get the same treatment – and not get pigeon- holed at the predictable times of the calendar?

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Well, I celebrate those broadcasters that spot the creative opportunities to tell the stories and ask the hard questions. Faith provides a lens through which the stuff of human living and dying, leaving and losing, laughing and weeping, searching and finding, can be explored. Faith isn’t a box whose lid can be lifted from time to time in order to keep one section of the audience happy. Faith is about the raw stuff of life – and the questions about what it all means. Not just at Christmas and Easter, but all year round.

And this is why the Sandford St Martin Trust joins Radio Times to celebrate and reward excellent religious broadcasting. That’s not broadcasting about religion for religious people; rather, it’s telling those – often surprising – stories about people whose lives and interests and failings and celebrations shine a light on the questions that face us all as human beings. They offer a sort of vocabulary for thinking, asking and wondering.

No shoving stuff down people’s throat. But capturing the imagination and offering images and narratives that keep scratching away at our mind and memory, possibly opening us up to new, and sometimes surprising, ways of thinking and seeing.

Whether it’s The Ark or Songs of Praise, Call the Midwife or Children of the Gaza War, a documentary or drama, there are some extraordinary programmes to celebrate. Cast your vote.

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Nick Baines is the Bishop of Leeds: read more about his broadcasting work and writing on his blog