The Holy Week and Easter season usually sees a considerable increase in religious programming and this year was particularly good. There were the old reliables like The Robe (BBC2) and Jesus of Nazareth (Sky Arts, and still impressive), but I like to look out for something different.
One of the most high profile and innovative religious programmes in recent times was Jesus – Countdown to Calvary (RTÉ1) on Easter Sunday. Presented by the always personable Hugh Bonneville, actor and theology graduate, it was a very professional and well-paced documentary with dramatic re-enactments that told the fascinating story of Holy Week, with subtle hints at a resonance with today’s political tensions in the area.
One of the best things about it was the sense of place – it was filmed in the very locations of those key events, and a miniature model of 1st Century Jerusalem also helped to set the geographical context.
Though largely historical and political in thrust, it was respectful to people of faith for the most part, though having novelist Amos Oz, unchallenged, blaming the Gospel stories for centuries of anti-Semitism and even the Holocaust was over the top and arguably feeding in to a parallel trend of anti-Christianity.
There were attempts to understand Judas better, with suggestions that he was either trying to provoke conflict, or that he was trying to ease conflict, and also a theory that Pontius Pilate was actually worse than his Biblical reputation.
But all this was speculation and traditional interpretations seem just as credible. The political context of the time was central, and not a lot of attention was given to the divinity of Jesus, or even the Resurrection, with just a brief comment at the end that Jesus’ death was “just the beginning”.
The programme, an RTÉ co-production, was flagged on The Leap of Faith (RTÉ Radio 1) on Good Friday. Director Gerry Hoban explained that it was to be a film that was “forensically historical and political”, and an early decision was that it should end with the tomb. They didn’t want to upset those of faith, nor alienate those of no faith. Hoban told us that Bonneville, who had gone from atheist to agnostic through his theological studies, felt it would reach a wider audience this way.
The same show featured a most uplifting item touching on our direct provision system. Asylum seeker Ellie Kisyombe was upset by the lack of dignity for people in her position, but her cheerfulness and positivity were infectious. Not allowed to have paid employment she found meaning in voluntary work, and valued her connections with the Catholic Church, the Irish Refugee Council and the ‘Our Table’ initiative.
Presenter Michael Comyn visited her at a pop-up café at Christchurch, and certainly her involvement in cooking projects had given her a taste for life!
On Wednesday of last week on BBC1, The Priest in the Jeans was an impressive and touching profile of Passionist Fr Gary Donegan, who came to prominence in Belfast when, with Fr Aidan Troy, he was involved in supporting young schoolgirls and their families in Ardoyne having to pass through a loyalist blockade on their way to school.
It was quite upsetting to see the terrified students being pelted with abuse, missiles and even a pipe bomb at one stage. Fr Donegan tried on so many occasions to ease tensions and make peace, at times incurring the anger of some in his own community. Subject to physical violence and death threats he still had nothing but praise for the genuineness of the people in his community.
Arena: Bob Dylan – Trouble No More graced BBC4 on Good Friday night. This was a newly-released film version of one of his gospel concerts from the 1980’s, when he had found God in Christianity. Not all his fans were impressed and in the opening scenes we saw a few of them complaining that he wasn’t singing his usual songs. It was quite a passionate performance from Dylan, joined by a gospel group singing backup and first rate musicians.
Most peculiarly, the songs were interspersed with recently filmed sermons, from a fictional evangelist who preached about everything from sin, through the ‘demon alcohol’, to how fast food damages our bodies, temples of God.
It was a strange mixture of contemporary concerns in old style revivalist mode, reportedly approved by the unpredictable Dylan himself.
Pick of the week
JESUS’ FEMALE DISCIPLES: THE NEW EVIDENCE
Channel 4, Sunday, April 8, 8 pm
Re-examining the role of women in the early Christian Church.
THE STORY OF THE JEWS
BBC4, Tuesday, April 10, 9 pm
Simon Schama’s history of Judaism, with the story of medieval Jews struggling to preserve their identity.
THE LAST PRAYER? CHRISTIANS IN THE MIDDLE EAST
RTÉ1, Wednesday, April 11, 11.40 pm (rescheduled)
At the beginning of the 20th Century, Christians made up approximately 20% of the population of the Arab world. Today, only about 5% of the Arab world is Christian.