Sunday, 4 January 2009

So Many Faiths, So Little Time

Peter Owen Jones would seem to be the BBC's preferred representative of "faith". He was discovered about five years ago by the former head of religion Alan Bookbinder, who thought his "maverick" style would make theology as fashionable as history was at the time. Owen Jones began with fairly straight programmes on Christian history, but his series have become both more personal and (paradoxically, or maybe not) less Christian with time. In "Extreme Pilgrim" he spent time in a Buddhist monastery and an Indian village before undergoing what looked uncomfortably like a nervous breakdown in the middle of the Egyptian desert. Apparently he has a parish in Sussex, but given the extent of his TV work I doubt they see much of him.

An undoubtedly engaging presenter, Owen Jones's appeal is not hard to fathom. He is an archetypal "trendy vicar", but of an unthreatening kind. In recent series he has discarded his once-trademark unbuttoned cassock, which made him look like he was auditioning for Doctor Who. Instead he wanders around in jeans and well-worn shirts, the kind of get up that in the contemporary code of televisual semiotics suggests gritty earnestness and emotional authenticity. None of that poncey ivory tower nonsense, in any case. There are occasionally-dropped hints of a chaotic private life and a somewhat rackety past during his days as an advertising man. Clergymen with similar CVs often turn into uncompromising evangelicals, sinners who have seen the light. The precise nature of Owen Jones's Christian belief, by contrast, is never specified, but it seems to be closely connected with his desire to be on TV.

His latest vehicle, premiering last Friday, sees him going "Around the world in 80 Faiths", thus adding to a recent and somewhat unwieldy sub-genre the Beeb seems to like. We've had food and gardens (even though Monty Don admitted to great difficulty finding eighty gardens worth visiting), and I'm still (despite recent setbacks) looking forward to Russell Brand's "Around the World in Eighty Lays". David Attenborough never needed this sort of gimmick. Applied to religion, the result is strikingly random: Wicca one minute, Pacific cargo-cults the next. Perhaps that's the point. Certainly, it precludes much in the way of context or analysis. It is telling that Channel 4 is offering a rival series on the History of Christianity that promises to be considerably more rigorous.

The list format invariably imposes a soggy relativism on all these programmes. When Dan Cruikshank was going Around the World in "Eighty treasures" a few years back he was required to - and did - express as much awe-struck wonderment at some Amazonian headdress as at the Taj Mahal. This latest show, too, seems set up to undermine the hierarchical idea of the "great religions" or, by extension, the assumption that mainstream faiths brought anything to the world except the weaponry with which they were imposed. Owen Jones is constantly embarrassed to discover evidence of Christian missionary activity, even describing as "supremely arrogant of my faith" the fact that an elaborate week-long funeral on an Indonesian island he was visiting was interrupted while a Christian minister led the mourners through a half-hearted rendition of Amazing Grace. Yet in another part of Indonesia he seems delighted (as well as surprised) to discover transvestite spirit mediums who describe themselves as devoutly Islamic. How can they be Muslim and also this? he wonders. His conclusion is that they "don't feel the need to put things in boxes." My guess, though, is that the Saudis haven't got to them yet. In the background of one of the shots a single woman was wearing a hijab. If Owen Jones comes back in ten years' time, the way things are going, there will be many more such women, and the mediums will all have disappeared.

Quite the most amusing moment came during an inevitable detour to the Australian Outback. Owen Jones dutifully emoted his breathy excitement about being privileged to witness a sacred "baby-smoking" ceremony, which seemed to involve a bored-looking Aboriginal woman dunking a newborn in a pile of smouldering leaves. Asking the woman about the meaning of the ritual, he was told simply that it was "to make the baby strong". Was it connected with Dreamtime? "No". Was it a holy thing? "No".

This explanation makes sense to me as a piece of fairly standard prophylactic magic. By exposing the child to a symbolic "dose" of the dangerous substance, fire, it will, it is imagined, be protected in later life. The principle is not disimilar to the inoculation to which we in the developed world subject our own infants. It also recalls a Greek myth in which Demeter, posing as a nanny in the household of Keleus, attempted to confer immortality on her host's son by annointing the child in ambrosia and placing it in a fire. Some fascinating parallels to explore, then, but Owen Jones had expected to hear some profound statement about the ritual "sealing in the ancestor spirits", and attributed his hostess's prosaic explanations to the destructive activities of missionaries. "Something's not quite right. They seem to have lost the spiritual meaining". Worse was to come when he asked her how the world came into be. The Dreamtime? Nope. "God made it". "How do you know?" "It is written in the Bible". That's him told.

The missionaries would seem to have performed quite an effective demolition job. Not only was the Aboriginal elder a Christian, she would seem to be a rather more convinced and thorough-going Christian than the reverend, who found the whole encounter dispiriting.

"As an Anglican priest I don't mind the fact that they're Christian", he said later, unconvincingly. Yet, he admitted, his romantic illusions about the Dreamtime had been shattered. But why should he - or we - have expected anything different? The Aborigines, of course, have (like the similarly victimised Native Americans) become fetishised as possessors of deep spirituality and wisdom. But that owes less to anything about them than about the intellectually fatal combination of guilt and sentimentality that they evoke in Westerners. Earlier visitors to Australia, less prejudiced, found backwardness, superstition and cruelty.

Cut off from the mainstream of human development, few in numbers and living in isolated bands in a hostile terrain, it is scarcely surprising that the natives of Australia should have persisted in a primitive condition. And no-one would wish to excuse the racism and contempt with which they were for so long treated. But acknowledgement of their sad history since colonisation does not entail accepting the fantasy that their culture was in any sense comparable to the high civilisations of Europe or Asia. Nor is there any reason to suppose that they were ever in possession of particular spiritual insight.

Later, after briefly watching some Madaeans baptising each other in a Sydney park - in many ways the most interesting part of the programme, but skirted over - he proved unexpectedly willing to get naked with some Australian witches, which was tastefully filmed, but not quite tastefully enough. He wasn't convinced by their nature-worship, but made appropriate noises about the way our civilisation has been cut off from the land - which he seemed to consider was the main reason why burning women as witches in past centuries had been "such a tragedy". I can't be certain that he believes the long-discredited Murrayite interpretation of the witch-trials (that the "witches" were practitioners of an ancient pagan cult) but I found the historical naivety on display here almost as disturbing as the sight of Owen Jones with his kit off. Perhaps he simply wanted to hammer home the message about the inherent superiority of anything traditional and earth-bound over the abstractions of religious theory.

This explanatory straight-jacket diverted a potentially valuable exercise into narrow and predictable channels. At a harvest procession in the Philippines, which looked fairly obviously like a local version of a traditional Spanish fiesta, Owen Jones solemnly announced that it demonstrated the survival of indigenous pagan practices beneath a thin veneer of Christianisation. In fact, both the Catholicism and the indigenous paganism were overshadowed by the intensely Hispanic exuberance on display here. Oddly, the programme-makers avoided the most obvious contribution of the Philippines to the international religious brew, the Good Friday crucifixions. Presumably Owen Jones's enthusiasm for participation has its limits. Yet as a local adaptation of Catholic piety, the Good Friday ritual is both more distinctive and more telling than a saints-day procession of the type that might equally have been filmed in Mexico City or Seville. As to its inner meaning, a man interviewed while painting a buffalo has a simple answer when Owen Jones asks him why people come. "They come because the floats are nice and the parade is famous", he says.

Owen Jones also visited the island of Tanna, home to a number of syncretic cargo-cults generically known as "Kostam". I was disappointed he didn't visit the famous community of Prince Philip worshippers who live in the island. I would have liked to know what, if anything, had been the long-term impact of the visit to the Duke by some of his devotees, filmed for Channel 4 in 2007 (and which I wrote about at the time). Had they been confirmed in their beliefs, or had meeting their living god produced a crisis of confidence? It was not to be. Instead, we had to be content with a member of the much more mainstream cult of John Frum, which appears largely to involve saluting the American flag, as well as a latter-day prophet who looked and sounded uncannily like a Rastafarian.

This is obviously the type of religion that is considered acceptable, even laudable, in Beebland: shorn of intellectual content - or, more importantly, moral requirement - reduced to feeling and experience, redefined almost as a sub-branch of anthropology. It is religion as travelogue, not so much thought-provoking as an antidote to thought. One can even detect a subtle atheistic push at work. We the viewer are invited to marvel at the richness and diversity of the world's religious expressions, and yet at the same time to realise that they are basically all the same and that, therefore, there is nothing to choose between them. Needless to say, any truth claims made by various religions don't feature. The very exoticism of many of the ceremonies visited by Rev Owen Jones, allied to their constantly-stressed fragility and to the persistent subtext that "this is what faith is" gives the programme a valedictory quality which reminded me of an earlier series on endangered species entitled "Last Chance to See". Religion, true religion (goes the message), is something cultural and specific worth preserving as part of human biodiversity. The point is not to believe, nor even to practise, a religious tradition, any more than most people would want
actually to be a humpbacked whale. Rather, you should feel happy that others are being religious on your behalf.

As for Owen Jones himself, one suspects that he was looking to native believers to temper his own pained agnosticism. But as, in the Australian desert, he laments the loss of tribal faith he provides a study in the decrepitude of his own. It's hard to imagine a seventh-century Peter Owen Jones, sent by a Roman film-crew (if such a thing existed) to cover religion among the Anglo-Saxons, being thrilled to participate in a sacrifice to Woden but rather disappointed to discover a priest in the next village already putting the finishing touches to his church.

12 comments:

Chris said...

Cracking stuff Heresiarch. Saved me having to watch the tedious little man's latest spurt of televisual drivel.

Peter Owen Jones and Dan Cruikshank; symptom of the CofE's continuing slide into irrelevance, or cause of same?

therealalekid said...

I think his Church is in Firle, just outside of Lewes.

I actually quite enjoyed his documentary on Charles Bradlaugh, which I think was one of his earlier works on the BEEB.

However his new stuff seems to similar to other current TV series. Forinstance Paul Mertons recent TV trip to India covered the same area that Rev Owen Jones had just shown. There is a heck of a lot of duplication on our TV screens.

WeepingCross said...

Clearly, the chief virtue of the series is precisely that it keeps him out of his parish. How he gets on in the relatively sound diocese of Chichester (lowest proportion of female clergy in the country, as I'm often reminded) I can't imagine.

DavidMWW said...

The point is not to believe, nor even to practise, a religious tradition, any more than most people would want actually to be a humpbacked whale. Rather, you should feel happy that others are being religious on your behalf.

Beautiful!

bruce said...

I thought was a very generous review and opinion. I found it a little too much 'style over content.'

Anyway, whilst I am here, I thought you might appreciate looking at this book when it comes out in June in the UK.

http://brucemhood.wordpress.com/about-supersense/

No matter whether you are a believer or a skeptic, it has something really important to say from the world of child development about the origins of adult belief.

Ok.. a shameless plug to promote the book but these are hard times!

Best

Bruce

Edwin said...

Thanks Heresiarch. I enjoyed the Dan Cruikshank programmes - saw lots of things I never saw before, and he seems a likeable chap.

This chap is just annoying!

Yasmin said...

I didn't watch this (on account of not having a TV) but I suggest that Aussie comedian John Safran does this much better in his dry 90's series "John Safran vs. God" in which he test drives a number of major, minor and crackpot (aren't they all?!) religions.

My personal fave is when he manages to get a fatwa declared against a fellow comedian.

Anonymous said...

It was unbelieveable to see how someone who readily takes part in cult practices and witch craft can be a leader of a Church. Sad times.

Hugh Oxford said...

Great article, which articulated what I struggle to about this man and this series.

If I wasn't already a Christian the question I ask myself is - would this man interest me in conversion?

The answer is no - certainly not - if anything the very opposite. He strikes me as a man with no real convictions or religion or faith.

Alan Burles said...

God is, of course, beyond all religions, faiths and convictions. Man cannot interpret the uninterpretable. So please give those who allow a wider possibility of divinity a chance. Those who adhere to a strict 'I'm a Christian, there is no other' must by definition be in a narrow, solitary corridor, just hoping and praying there is light at the end of their personal tunnel.

Alan Burles

Nathan Durrant said...

I always thought that bloke was a trifle odd. You just summed up all my unformulated feelings into thoughts.

starion said...

Quote"God is, of course, beyond all religions, faiths and convictions. Man cannot interpret the uninterpretable. So please give those who allow a wider possibility of divinity a chance. Those who adhere to a strict 'I'm a Christian, there is no other' must by definition be in a narrow, solitary corridor, just hoping and praying there is light at the end of their personal tunnel.

Alan Burles


This is exactly why Alan Jesus said that broad is the way that leads to destruction but narrow is the road to eternal life. He also said that no one comes to the father but through me. These are hard truths that people and it seems the Rev have a hard time following. I have MANY MANY issues with what man has done to christianity but it doesnt change the fact that there is only ONE way whether we like it or not.