Film & TV
4 min read

It's a miracle that ITV's drama-docs tell gospel truth

What we need to ask of the well told stories that move us.

George is a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and an Anglican priest.

A doctor in blue scrubs stands looking exhausted.
Joanne Froggatt playing Dr Rachel Clarke.
ITV Studios/ITV.

ITV has reopened a debate over the value and validity of drama-documentaries, with two immensely powerful political serials. Breathtaking, set in hospital wards as the covid crisis hit the UK, concluded last week. Before that, Mr Bates vs. the Post Office did more for justice in a few hours for wrongly accused sub-postmasters, sacked and imprisoned for frauds that didn’t exist, than any number of leaden public inquiries stretching into a cynically can-kicking future. 

A regular refrain from doubters of drama-doc is to question whether events portrayed really happened. At the most extreme end of denial, invariably motivated by political self-interest, if a scene can be shown to be non-factual, then the whole thing can be dismissed as rubbish. 

I’m here to knock down that argument, not least because it has the most profound implications for people of faith and how they own their sacred scriptures. 

Truth is not only about events, but about love and hope and self-sacrifice and much else besides. 

Take Breathtaking, based on the book of the experiences of front-line doctor (and breathtakingly good writer) Rachel Clarke. There were more than a couple of scenes that I thought wouldn’t, indeed couldn’t, have happened in a factual reality. I can’t know, because I wasn’t there. But, importantly, I don’t care either, for reasons I’ll come to. 

These scenes related to the death from covid, contracted on duty as a consequence of inadequate PPE equipment, of a much-loved fellow nurse called Divina. A colleague reads cards from friends to her as she switches off the life-support machines, while our heroine consultant bears tearful witness. Later, all her colleagues gather, socially distanced, to watch a livestream of her funeral. 

If these events happened in real time, then I apologise profusely to Clarke and her team. But my guess – and this makes the drama even more heartbreaking rather than less – is that they simply wouldn’t have had the time. As with soldiers in a war zone, which is the regular analogy of choice, they were overrun by critical cases for whom survival was the imperative. They surely would not have had the bandwidth, as it were, to bury their dead.   

Why this doesn’t matter, indeed why it is vital that it doesn’t, is that drama addresses human emotions as well as human experiences. So it’s at least as important to express how it felt as to show exactly what happened. This isn’t manipulative, because truth is not only about events, but about love and hope and self-sacrifice and much else besides, all of which point to bigger truths about the human condition. 

Those somethings are miracles. So, ask not: Did it happen?  Ask instead: What has happened?

Not so long ago, you couldn’t bump into anyone from the digital marketing professions without them mooing on about “storytelling”, the idea that corporates and their brands need to frame their offers to market in an engaging narrative. 

I’ve always thought they were rather late to that party. So stories are important? Who knew? Similarly, journalists – or reporters at least – speak of their products as stories. And the good ones tell us something we don’t already know. But the effort here (or at least it should be) is to relate what is provably, factually true. 

This is rather different from the motivation of those of us with a religious faith, for whom Truth with a capital T points to something that transcends the demands of simple reportage. Yes, it’s about an emotional response, but emotions are human too. They’re also insufficient on their own for full engagement with the divine drama. 

The mystery of this drama is played out at church on at least a weekly basis in the Eucharist, when Christians come together in communion, as the mystical body of Christ and as if invited to his supper for the very first time. It’s not just an event or a re-enactment, it’s the drama of now and of the real presence (call it the real thing). 

Mystery is what the scriptures of the three Abrahamic faiths endeavour to address. For Christians, the life death and resurrection of the Christ; for Jews, the deliverance of God’s people and, for Muslims, the revelation of the Prophet. These are not just historical records, they are stories that explore the mind of God, the better to understand human existence. 

That’s to explore the miraculous, to allow room for miracles in human existence. At Easter, Christians will celebrate what we might call the big one: The resurrection of the Christ and the defeat of death. So, to that obvious question: What really happened? 

Well, something happened. Something so incalculably enormous that, within three days of the crucifixion, the utterly defeated and dispersed first disciples were transformed. Something so incomprehensible that they struggled to explain it with the language of simple reportage, though they tried. Something for which untold thousands were suddenly prepared to die. Something which was apparently defeated by worldly power, but is alive and well as the world’s largest religion two millennia later. 

Those somethings are miracles. So, ask not: Did it happen?  Ask instead: What has happened?  And the story is not only about what has happened, it’s really about how, emotionally and spiritually, we feel and respond to it.  

In short, we’re asked to give ourselves up to this drama-documentary. It’s breathtaking. 

5 min read

Dawkins is wrong about the nature of belief

You can’t rejoice in its collapse and like its cultural inheritance too.

Yaroslav is assistant priest at Holy Trinity, Sloane Square, London.

A man sits and speaks, against a background of a bookcase.
Dawkins on LBC.

Richard Dawkins sat in a tree,  

Sawing every branch he could see,  

As he sawed through the branch on which he sat,  

He raged, "It's not fair that I should go splat!" 

I am a recovering New Atheist. I was such a New Atheist that I have a claim to fame: I have given what-for to Anne Widdecombe and the Archbishop Emeritus of Abuja. I was there, as a spotty, greasy haired, angry teenager when Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry socked-it-to the Roman Catholics at an Intelligence Squared debate. The motion was ‘The Catholic Church is a Force for Good in the World’. The question I asked was so poorly formed that the moderator deemed it a comment.  

I was a callow youth. Forgive me.  

I am now not quite so young and not quite so spotty. Now that I am a man, I have put away childish things. I have abandoned atheism and embraced faith in Jesus Christ. I am a priest in the Church of England, fully in favour of the Ten Commandments and the moral framework of the Church. Clearly, I’ve been on a journey.  

So, it seems, has Professor Richard Dawkins.  

The author of The God Delusion, and scourge of many public Christian thinkers and apologists, has recently made some turbulent waves. Having surfed the tides of New Atheism, he now seems to be swimming against the current. He is a proud ‘cultural Christian’. In an interview on LBC he forcefully defended the Christian inheritance of this country: 

“I do think that we are culturally a Christian country…I call myself a ‘cultural Christian’… I love hymns and Christmas carols…I feel at home in the Christian ethos… I find that I like to live in a culturally Christian country…” 

Professor Dawkins went on to clarify (several times!) that he doesn’t believe a single word of Christian doctrine or the Bible. He was cheered by the continued decline in the numbers of believing Christians in this country. This wasn’t his Christianity. He argued that the distinction between a ‘believing Christian’ and a ‘cultural Christian’ is such that one can be both a very firm atheist and a ‘cultural Christian’. He doesn’t want people believing the Virgin Birth or the Resurrection of Jesus, but he does want us to keep our Cathedrals and beautiful parish churches. At first reading this could be seen as positive - an unlikely defender of the Christian faith coming to the rescue of a beleaguered Church.  

It isn’t. 

What the interview demonstrated was that Professor Dawkins doesn’t really understand the nature of belief or the nature of culture. If he did, he would understand a basic principle: culture doesn’t just magically appear and grow. Culture is formed and maintained from fundamental beliefs.  

You can’t have the fruits without the roots. 

Professor Dawkins likes church music. He likes the architecture of grand Cathedrals. He likes living in a society with a Western liberal ethic. All three of these fruits have grown from roots of the Christian tradition, and not just any Christian tradition. They have grown out of the BELIEVING Christian tradition.  

Why on earth would people spend inordinate amounts of time and money building Cathedrals if they didn’t actually believe the worship of God was important? Why would musicians pour out the best of their creativity into sacred music if not for a love of Jesus? Why would they structure our society in a way that sees the care of the poor and oppressed as a fundamental necessity if they don’t take the Sermon on the Mount seriously? 

People don’t die because they quite like a soft cultural inheritance - they die because they believe! 

Professor Dawkins finds himself living in a world that has been so shaped and saturated by Christianity that even our secularism has been called ‘Christian’. He lives in a Christian house. He likes it. Now he thinks he can have it and keep it while seeking to undermine and destroy the very beliefs that are the foundation, the stones, the mortar. 

He can’t.  

You don’t get to demand that everyone build their house on sand, and then complain that it is collapsing…and he does worry that it is collapsing. Predictably, he opened the interview by discussing his qualms about Islam and how he wouldn’t want this country to change from being ‘culturally Christian’ to ‘culturally Muslim’: “Insofar as Christianity can be seen as a bulwark against Islam I think it’s a very good thing.” I find this invocation of my faith offensive - not just because I believe my faith is ‘the truth’ (not just a club for angry atheists to bash Muslims with), but because it is so stupid! 

I use the word advisedly.  

It is a comment from a man who can’t seem to understand cause-and-effect. People who don’t believe strongly in something don’t fight for it. Rejoicing in the collapse of Christian belief while expecting it to protect you from other religions is about as obtuse as an individual can get. The Church grew, and spread, and produced the hymns and cathedrals and ethics that Professor Dawkins loves so much, because of people’s firm belief in Jesus Christ as our Risen Saviour. People died to spread this faith - THIS CULTURE! As Tertullian said: “…the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.” People don’t die because they quite like a soft cultural inheritance - they die because they believe! 

It was this realisation that led me to where I am now. I found that everything I cared about flowed from the Christian faith I rejected, so I rejected it no more. I wanted to continue enjoying the ‘fruits’ of my ‘cultural Christianity’, so I stopped hacking away at the ‘roots’ of ‘believing Christianity’. Professor Dawkins is seemingly wilfully blind to this fact: ‘believing Christian’s make it possible to have ‘cultural Christians’. Take away the belief and just watch what happens to the culture. 

“I don’t was to be misunderstood. I do think it’s nonsense.” 

As a believing Christian I respond: can we please have our culture back, then?