Saturday, February 26, 2005

Beyond Belief

I went up to Manchester on Thursday to take part in a recording for a Beyond Belief on Radio 4. The topic was Gnosticism and the other two taking part in the discussion were Timothy Freke and Michael Green, with an interview with Elaine Pagels on tape to be broadcast at the half-way point. Ernie Rea was in the chair as usual. I'd met both Timothy Freke and Michael Green before, though in very different contexts. Tim I met in 2001 on the Channel 4 programme Right to Reply. I was on with Michael Wakelin to defend the BBC1 series Son of God against Tim's critique, a short film and then an in-studio discussion. This time it was good to get to know Tim a little better. On that occasion they kept us apart until we met on set. On this occasion, we shared lunch together first and, as it happened, a train journey afterwards. We disagreed profoundly, and I especially disagreed with Tim's Jesus-myth approach, on top of what I would call a kind of popular philosophical approach rather than an historical approach to Gnosticism, but Tim's company I enjoyed very much -- and we had a few laughs.

Michael Green I had met before in Oxford when I was a fresher. He was rector of St Aldate's Church at the time and used to invite the freshers to tea in the rectory on a rolling college by college basis each Sunday tea-time. Goodness only knows how they managed to keep up with this across the weeks and years, but we appreciated it. I remember their asking us if we would like to pray together after we had had our tea and cakes, and I remember getting a special prayer because I would be studying Theology, so would need additional strength! I also recall the dog sniffing around us while we were praying.

That was almost twenty years ago. This time Michael Green was in a studio in Oxford and the other three of us were in Manchester. I've done Beyond Belief several times and just once in a lonely studio in Birmingham down the line -- I don't recommend it. It is much easier to do when you can see Ernie and your fellow guests. And on this occasion we lost Michael Green for a good ten minutes or so during the recording.

The discussion was quite enjoyable. I felt like I spoke less than the other two, both of whom got pretty passionate, the one for how wonderful Gnostic texts were and how much they can lead to inner enlightenment today, the other for how far they were in thought from orthodox Christian texts in the canon. Happily, I was not asked to define Gnosticism, something that I would not find easy after having read Michael Allen Williams and Karen King. Also happily, we tended to focus most often on the Gospel of Thomas which I know better than any of the other Nag Hammadi texts, though it was a shame that we did not get into some of the really interesting funkier bits of the Apocryphon of John and the like. Ernie asked me to tell the story of the discovery of the Nag Hammadi texts too. But as usual on such occasions, I cannot now remember a great deal of the rest of what I said, so I hope that none of it was daft. (I do remember sharing my first impression of reading the Gospel of Thomas, that I wondered whether the author of it was on drugs).

The programme goes out on Monday 7 March at 4.30 pm on Radio 4.

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