In 1944 Cyril Garbett, the Archbishop of York, wrote in the Radio Times that “the wireless and the English tongue are means by which God’s message of love and peace can spread through the world” (in Connelly 2012: 152). Fast forward more than 70 years and we find that when we gather around the radio at Christmas time such a sense of community is garnered that the season takes on the characteristics of a secular religion. Indeed, there are commitments and rituals – even, forms of devotion – on display that it might require on our part a willingness to reframe the boundaries around what we consider to constitute ‘religion’. It might even be the case that the secular can take on religious properties, in a manner which conforms with how for Mazur and McCarthy religious meaning may increasingly be “found in activities that are often considered meaningless” (2011: 2).
It was with these considerations in mind that I wrote Christmas as Religion, in which I argued that the sense of fandom and community generated each year by Christmas Junior Choice on Radio 2 are as fertile when it comes to exploring matters of faith, identity, beliefs and values as those made within religious broadcasting. If, for example, we might be inclined to see our ultimate spiritual meaning to lie in our relationships with others, then Junior Choice might be a prime example of an alternative way to form a concept of religion, with its devotees who construe the two hours of nostalgia and reconnecting with the past on Christmas morning as a form of transcendent, even sacred, time.
Ed Stewart, Christmas Junior Choice
Crucially, we might want to ask whether the fact that the BBC Charter requires the organization to broadcast at least 110 hours of faith-based content per year, across television and radio, adequately reflects the extent to which religion is being produced or disseminated. It may, rather, be the BBC’s secular output that is shaping the content and format of religion today.
On 29 November 2017 the BBC issued a press release titled ‘Christmas Religious Programming on the BBC’, in which its Commissioning Editor of Religion & Ethics, Fatima Salaria, announced that “The BBC’s religion output at Christmas aims to bring communities together to reflect on the true meaning of this very special time of the year” (www.bbc.co.uk/mediacentre/mediapacks/christmas-religious-programming-2017). She continued that it was the “fantastic mix of traditional carols, festive music, spiritual contemplation and live worship we are offering” that would give audiences “a variety of opportunities to celebrate the festive season in their own personal way.”
Curiously, though, when one looks beyond substantive approaches to religion, in which traditional institutional dimensions of religion are being emphasized, we find that, as Susan Douglas’s comprehensive study of American radio has shown, “Few inventions invoke such nostalgia, such deeply personal and vivid memories, such a sense of loss and regret” and that “there are few devices with which people from different generations and backgrounds have had such an intimate relationship” (Douglas 2004: 3). As well as shaping our desires, fantasies and images of the outside world – indeed, “our very imaginations” – she sees radio as having helped us to “create internal maps of the world and our place in it, urging us to construct imagined communities to which we do, or do not, belong” (ibid.: 5). For Barnard, also, “For most of us, life without radio is difficult to imagine” and, of “all the major mass communications media, radio is perhaps the most ubiquitous and most easily available…, punctuating, enlivening and infiltrating the lives of its listeners” (Barnard 2000: 2).
If this is the case, then radio can function as a tradition-supplying resource which, in addition to transmitting religious content, is able to mediate and engender religious experience. According to Stewart Hoover, “The realms of ‘religion’ and ‘media’ can no longer be easily separated”, as he sets about trying to “chart the ways that media and religion intermingle and collide in the cultural experience of media audiences” (2006: 1), as they “occupy the same spaces, serve many of the same purposes, and invigorate the same practices in late modernity” (ibid.: 9). With this in mind, radio is not just about broadcasting religion, along the lines of the BBC’s charter, but it is about doing religion. As with so much of what religion purportedly does with its adherents through community, radio “creates a unique intimacy with its listeners who can interact with it through their imagination” and, as a companion, can be “used as a friend to provide company, buck us up when we are feeling down or relax us when we are tired and tense” (Fleming 2002: 1).
Crucially, as Douglas sees it, “Most modes of listening generate a strong feeling of belonging” (2004: 8) in a manner which accords with the findings of Abby Day’s research that people tend to identify “their human relationships as most important to them in informing their beliefs and morality” (2013: 68) and that, asked what they believed in, many of her informants would answer that they believe in their relationships with other people as the most important values in their lives. This shift in the understanding of transcendence from a theocentric to an “everyday, human, social” (ibid.: 71) context helps us to understand how, through radio, we have ties to a virtual community of people who share our same tastes and predilections – Douglas refers to when “40 million people, for example, tuned into exactly the same thing” and there is an almost sacred dimension to her talk of how in the “act of listening itself” one knows that they “and other listeners are experiencing that very moment of [their] lives in exactly the same way” (2004: 24) – and to presenters who often speak to us “in the most intimate, confidential, and inclusive tones” (ibid.: 22).
At Christmas time, this ‘secular sacred’ way of understanding the festival is especially pronounced. I recently undertook a study of Christmas output across the BBC’s national, regional and local networks on Christmas Day 2015 where the role of family and community was much in evidence. On Radio Solent’s breakfast show Louisa Hannan conveyed to her listeners that Christmas morning “is the best time to be on the radio”. Her mission was one of ensuring that “if you’re on your own for Christmas we’re here to keep you company throughout the day, and all over the festive period”, and there were frequent references to how “money can’t buy that sort of thing”. The pastoral aspect of radio was reinforced by how for Hannan “I think most of us look back and there is somebody that we’re thinking of, at least one person today”, including those who have lost someone close to them and that “It’s not a nice time is it to be on your own, but we’re here to keep you company”. ‘Conventional religion’ played a relatively small role in the programme, taking merely the form of a pre-recorded homily from the Bishop of Winchester, The Right Revd. Tim Dakin, who related the arrival of a new baby in a family to how “Jesus is the gift God wants us to have… in effect inviting us to hold him in our hands and to discover the hope that living with him brings”, though “Like many refugees today the holy family were left far from their own community, dependent on others and unable to return to their own home”.
The community angle was reinforced on the programme that followed when Tristan Pascoe welcomed those listeners who “may well be finding themselves without someone special for the first time this year”, adding that “You’re all part of the family, you’re very welcome along here and we’re glad to have you”. There was much reciprocity, with Pascoe thanking the listeners for letting him be a part of their special day – “you know I feel I’m among friends this morning, which is lovely” – which he described as “a very intimate feeling, I feel it’s just us out there”.
If Day is correct, then, that “Christianity functions in [people’s] lives to reinforce familial, ethnic and social conditions”, and in terms of how they stress “responsibility for personal destiny” (2013: 68), then the way in which listeners prioritized family, charity, acts of kindness, and the need to reach out to relatives, friends and those dear to us who might be alone at Christmas (as when for Tristan Pascoe “You’re all part of the family, you’re very welcome along here and we’re glad to have you, and I’m glad to be here as well, thanks for having me”), suggest the pre-eminent role of the sacred in British society. Day, indeed, specifically categorizes ‘love’, ‘family’, ‘fairness’ and ‘kindness’ as manifestations of the sacred, and the fact that they are not explicitly grounded in ‘religious’ vocabulary does not obviate the degree to which they need to be factored into what we consider to be the role that religion plays in Christmas radio. If, in short, Day is right that most people ‘believe’ in their relationships with other people, such that their “orientation” is “to people, not to gods, and thus anthropocentric seems to convey best the idea that human beings are ‘centric’ to their lives and it is with them they locate power and authority” (2013: 73), then we need to ensure that we are looking for such demonstrations and expressions of religious and/or sacred behaviour and values in the right places.
So, when Junior Choice returns to the airwaves this Christmas with Anneka Rice in the hot seat, don’t groan or reach for the off button when you hear ‘The Laughing Gnome’ or ‘Nellie The Elephant’. For, it might just be the most fertile – if unlikely – manifestation of religion that you are going to hear on the radio this year.
Chris Deacy is Reader in Theology and Religious Studies, and has been at Kent since 2004. Chris’ most recent monograph, Christmas as Religion, published by Oxford University Press in August 2016, takes issue with traditional ways of conceptualizing the relationship between Christmas and religion. Instead of associating ‘religion’ with formal or institutional forms of Christianity or seeing Christmas as a commercial and secular holiday, Deacy argues that it is in a supernaturally-themed Christmas film about Santa or a Christmas radio programme such as BBC Radio 2’s Christmas Junior Choice that matters of faith, identity, beliefs and values – traditionally seen as lying within the domain of ‘religion’ – are played out in the world today.
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