Over the past decade, a little English word has become synonymous with broadcasting that puts ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances: “reality”. In this context, reality can often mean people putting their lives on hold, flying off to a desert island, and taking part in bewildering challenges.
But there is another kind of reality broadcasting – one that I think delves far deeper into the questions of who we are, what we are, and why we are. This is the kind of radio and TV celebrated by the Sandford St Martin Trust awards.
It can sometimes seem hard to remember these days, but we are more than just material beings: we are also spiritual beings. Religious broadcasting can, without embarrassment or spectacle, tackle the big stuff in life: death, love, fear, forgiveness, doubt, conviction, and how we relate to one another as human beings.
The life of Jesus involved all these things – it was intensely real. His life was about immersing himself in the suffering and despair of others, and ultimately about taking that agony upon himself on our behalf.
Our lives, too, are intensely real. And they can become even more so when we accept the challenge of living religiously. While illustrating this in a short piece of media is a heroic task, it seems one that many broadcasters have proved themselves up to this year.
That much is clear in shows such as Sister Wendy Beckett’s history of Christian art, which also became her own deeply personal and moving story of living with God. Or the extraordinary BBC Radio Wales production Get Me to Gethsemane, which told the story of Gauri Taylor Nayar living out her dying husband’s wishes for her by conducting her Methodist choir as a focus after his death. The climax comes when she realises what Jesus’s anguished prayers had to teach about the Resurrection.
These are reality shows – because these are our realities. While exploring the intimacy of our human experience, religious broadcasting – at its best – does something else equally important: it teaches us about each other.
Most people have some kind of religious belief, and certainly some form of cultural religious inheritance. In a multicultural society like ours, religious literacy is something whose importance only continues to grow.
For adults over a certain age who received little in the way of religious education at school – especially of an inter-faith variety – religious broadcasting is likely to be their best guide to the different faiths, not just of the people they see on the news but of the people they meet at the school gates, or queue next to at the post office.
Some people these days firmly believe that faith and religious life should be kept behind closed doors. But if broadcasters were also to adopt the view that religion is something separate and private, rather than stitched into our public life, then we could set off down a dangerous road. We would be cultivating ignorance where what we need is insight, and prejudice where we most badly need open minds. We live in an increasingly multicultural society. Knowing, understanding and celebrating the faiths of our neighbours will help us all to flourish.
For this reason, it’s essential that we support broadcasting that teaches us about those around us. The marvellous portrait of Manchester’s Jewish community in ITV’s Strictly Kosher is one example of how the media can help us to see the people around us as they really are. Likewise, Channel 4’s Islam: the Untold Story gave viewers an opportunity to appreciate the rich and fascinating history of the Muslim faith.
Telling stories about ourselves and others, in a way that celebrates the full scope of what it means to be human: that for me is what makes a reality show.
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Choose the RT Readers’ Award winner in the Sandford St Martin Trust religious broadcasting awards – here are the nominees…
Goodbye to Canterbury, BBC2: Dr Rowan Williams on his spiritual touchstone: Canterbury Cathedral.
Westminster Abbey, BBC2: A behind-the-scenes look at one of Britain’s most historic institutions.
Islam: The Untold Story, C4: The origins of Islam and the fault line that runs between science and religion, history and faith.
The Preston Passion, BBC1: A Passion play with a difference, intercut with three dramas based on real Preston characters.
Strictly Kosher, ITV: A tapestry of experiences from Manchester’s Jewish community.
David Suchet: In the Footsteps of St Paul, BBC1: A personal journey in search of the man who arguably turned Christianity into a world religion.