The Representation of Religious/Spiritual Experience on factual British TV, 2000-09Ruth Deller, Sheffield Hallam University AHRC-funded PhD candidate
Presentation Outline Factual TV conventions Personalities Journeys and experiences Acceptable and unacceptable beliefs and practices How do these programmes relate to sociological debates? Secularism and ‘re-enchantment’ NRMs, ‘fundamentalisms’, ‘pick and mix’, spirituality over religion Personalisation and individualisation of belief
British Factual TV Conventions Personality-driven – whatever subject/genre Celebrities ‘Experts’ Real people Heroes and villains Group ‘roles’ Heroes or ‘good’ people (or ‘neutrals’) control narratives Shorthand and stereotypes About ‘journeys’ or ‘experiences’ Literal and/or metaphorical Geographical, historical, internal Tourism – look at the unusual, the spectacle Transforming – personal change
The ‘journey’• ‘I’m going on an unprecedented journey, to take part in rites rarely filmed before and learn about how humankind practices religion. As a priest I’ll be confronting cultures that will challenge my values and prejudices. I’ll be surprised, offended, enlightened and amidst the baffling and the bizarre I’ll find moments of great warmth and serenity.’ (Peter Owen Jones, Around the World in 80 Faiths, BBC Two, 2009)
What is acceptable? Moderation, tolerance, liberalism, acceptance Willingness to change or be questioned Doing ‘good’ deeds Emotional/sensory – within limits Peacefulness, silence, stillness ‘Natural’ or ‘authentic’ practices and beliefs Rationality ‘Meaningful’ The exotic – but only in its proper place Personal transformation – within reason.
‘Acceptable’ ‘I think she’s, she’s the epitome of the English Muslim because in the United Kingdom really there’s a need to create a culture, not preserve a culture, not preserve a Moroccan or an Egyptian or a Pakistani or an Indian way, but the need to create a British Islam, which meets the spiritual needs of the British people, people in modern times’. (The Retreat, BBC Two)
‘Acceptable’ ‘Ithink our Hindu faith is very very important to us. I don’t sit in a temple and pray for hours on end. Even if it’s expected of me, I don’t think I’d be able to carry that out, I’m not that religious. But yeah, we do have our two minutes in the morning, myself and God’ (Karma Babies, BBC One).
‘Acceptable’ ‘For these people a love of God is at the heart of their community. In these merciless conditions, their faith is what breathes life into their existence’. (Around the World in 80 Faiths, BBC Two) ‘It’s impossible not to be drawn in by the beauty of the ritual of prayer’. (Dan Cruickshanks’ Adventures in Architecture, BBC Four/Two)
‘Acceptable’ ‘Itruly believe that Christianity is not on its last legs, that the faith I learned from my grandmother is still as strong as ever. If the traditional churches of the west can only resolve their problems and reach out to and work with people of faith across the world then Christianity can not only survive, but prosper’. (Christianity: A History, Channel 4)
Moments of ‘transformation’ ‘It struck me that was what yoga is – whenever body and mind are together, and still. Something was definitely happening, because the next morning, I couldn’t stop crying’. (Jayne Middlemiss, The Beginner’s Guide to… Yoga, Channel 4, 2007) ‘What happened about an hour and a half ago has completely changed me. Something happened, something touched me very deeply and very profoundly but I tell you something, right, and this is me talking, this isn’t someone that wanted this to happen, or expected it to, when I woke up this morning, I didn’t believe in this and I, as I speak to you know, I do. Whatever ‘it’ is, and I still don’t know what that is, I believe in it, cos I saw it and I felt it and it spoke to me and that’s something that will stay with me for the rest of my life’. (Tony, The Monastery, BBC Two, 2005)
What is unacceptable? The exotic – out of context ‘Extreme’ emotional or physical manifestations and expressions Being ‘too formal’, cold or closed-minded Conservative, ‘fundamentalist’ views ‘Irrational’ or ‘suspicious/sinister’ beliefs Controlling others, especially children Trying to force beliefs on others Money being made from beliefs/practices Hypocrisy ‘Flaky’ beliefs with no ‘substance’
‘Unacceptable’ ‘Is someone who believes the Holy Spirit speaks to them in the language of angels worthy of our respect, or in need of psychological treatment?’ (Am I Normal?, BBC Two) ‘Are these children just innocent conduits of the work of God, or are they the result of desperate parents and overzealous congregations in search of the miraculous?’ (Baby Bible Bashers, Channel 4)
‘Unacceptable’ ‘Well, my first impression is that this is just… silly. There may be hidden truth in that but it… looks like a sort of er, just a kind of sell for people who are desperate’ (Imagine: The Secret of Life, BBC One) ‘Hardline Christians are not just campaigning to change our laws. A group meets regularly in London to campaign against the building of a large mosque’. (Dispatches: In God’s Name, Channel 4)
‘Unacceptable’ ‘Green Lane mosque (shots of promo material) calls itself a centre for interfaith communication, welcoming people of all religions, but our reporter filmed there over four months, and found this speaker, Abu Usama, was their main English Language preacher. He says Christians and Jews are enemies to Muslims’. (Dispatches: Undercover Mosque, Channel 4)
Secularisation Dominant perspective: Britain is a secular society (or at least is perceived as being), but religion still matters to some: ‘People often say religion is a spent force, but I suspect it’s alive and kicking’. (Peter Owen- Jones, Around the World in 80 Faiths, BBC Two, 2009) ‘Ours is said to be a godless age. Yet billions remain faithful to religions thousands of years old’. (Christianity: A History, Channel 4, 2009)
NRMS and fundamentalisms NRMS barely covered and when they are, they are treated with suspicion or seen as ‘flaky’ or a joke. ‘Fundamentalism’ is always seen as negative, within religion or atheism. Opposing value = moderation (aka liberalism and tolerance). ‘Fundamental beliefs’ rarely understood or explained, but heavily criticised.
‘Pick and Mix’ spirituality ‘It’s a way of getting closer to God… so it’s a way of getting in touch with the universe, God, the divine… because everyone’s different, they’ve all got their own ways…’ (Jayne Middlemiss, The Beginner’s Guide to… Yoga, Channel 4, 2007) ‘My aim is to help Charlie’s life change, in a spiritual way. To do that I’m going to introduce him to four practices that he’s going to use in his life for the next four weeks. I’m not asking him to believe in any of these religions or even in God…’ (Jonathan Edwards, Spirituality Shopper, Channel 4, 2003)
Spirituality over religion? Key ‘buzz’ word – but most used in a sensitive way or positive way when relating to mainstream religion. ‘Alternative’ spiritualities generally treated with suspicion or derision. Use of shorthand e.g. nature, sunrises, candles to represent ‘spiritual’ moments.
Personalisation/Individualism Strong emphasis on personal journeys, personal experiences, personal interpretations, personal values. Group expressions of spirituality can be uplifting but there is also suspicion over collective religious/spiritual experiences.
Audiences Does it represent me/us? Do we get a fair treatment? Where people do/dont buy into the narratives of the programmes.
Summary Sense of importance of religion (this has increased over decade, less ‘why believe’, more ‘what is role of religion’). Spirituality and religion still largely understood through shorthand and stereotyping. Several groups/beliefs still excluded. Emphasis on moderation and tolerance within religious belief. Desire for ‘fairness’ and detailed exploration of topics. Clear levels of what is and isn’t acceptable.