How should the BBC show religion in historical drama and documentaries?

What is the BBC doing about religion?

The BBC is reviewing the way it deals with religion: not only in ‘religious’ programmes but also in drama. A long overdue review. As a practicing Christian and a historical novelist, I have a particular interest in this subject. I cannot avoid approaching this with a certain bias, but I will try to be as objective as possible. I have written recently about Gunpowder.

Do historical documentaries treat religion fairly?

Some are very good. A lot of the ones about the Tudors have been. However, some have played down the very real threat to England from Catholic Spain and the oppressive nature of the mediaeval church against which Protestants were protesting.  It would be helpful if more documentaries gave  information, as a few have, about the role of religion in everyday life, not just doctrinal disputes among academics.

A preacher indulging in an argument about religion
A preacher indulging in an argument about religion
Which ones are most unfair to religion?

Generally, anything about the nineteenth century. They usually show, rightly, the shortcomings of the church with far too little attention to the positive side. They also tend to judge it by the standards of the twenty-first century. For instance,  most people would have expected the church to speak up for the ten commandments, at any time before the sexual revolution of the 1960’s.

What about the Empire?

Documentaries tend to blame missionaries and others for exporting both the Christian religion and the British Way of Life, wherever they went, with no cultural sensitivity. This is a fair criticism up to a point. However, there were always some who tried to separate biblical truth from Britishness. They were among the most successful in the long term. I would also like to see more information and analysis about that which Christianity and the British way of life replaced. I would like to see some discussion of the alternatives. Would modern secularists have permitted the burning of widows, the sacrificing of infants or the deprivation of property of converts? Would they not have challenged unscientific beliefs about disease and disability?

Can’t fiction depict religion as the writer wishes?

Of course, it is unfair to object to any one drama that portrays a religious person in a negative way. Noone can say it is unrealistic to suggest that there were some clergymen and religious lay people who were judgmental, hypocritical, selfish or guilty of any sin you can name. People have always been human. Likewise, there must have been many who were well meaning but naive or simply inept. My problem is that historical dramas seem to portray almost all religious people as fitting into one of those categories.

How should religion be shown in costume drama?

There is plenty of evidence from contemporary letters and diaries that many ministers of religion in every age were sincere, sensible and competent, like Brother Cadfael and Father Brown.  I especially congratulate the makers of The Last Kingdom for showing King Alfred as a sincere Christian. He seems fully human, with good and bad qualities, but with real faith. I am sorry that these seem to me to be the exceptions. Why? Perhaps it’s too easy to go for the stereotype, rather than having to create real characters.

Let us pray that the review is thorough and extends to historical dramas and documentaries. 

 

 

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