The UK publication of Band of Angels last week meant that I spent quite a bit of time speaking with journalists about why things that happened 2,000 years ago are still ‘news’. I have to say that I came away from the experience pleasantly surprised by how interesting these conversations were – of course these are people whose livelihood depends on ‘finding the story’ – so perhaps I should not have been surprised – but it’s always a thrill to hear people who don’t usually ‘do’ ancient history get excited about the subject.
I’m in Washington DC at the moment, so a number of these conversations took place in the radio studios at BBC Washington, where a poster-sized photograph of Winston Churchill speaking into a BBC microphone greets you as you enter. But it was another photograph of Churchill, which I’ve pasted in here – the famous image of his visit to Coventry Cathedral during the Blitz – that kept coming to mind during these conversations. Almost every journalist I spoke to this week asked me, in one way or another, whether its failure to honour the role of Christian women is one of the causes for the increasing feeling in Britain that the institutional Church is ‘out of touch’ with the population, a hold-over from a history that is no longer ‘relevant’. This feeling isn’t just journalistic instinct – a recent article in the Church Times reported that 96% of self-identified Anglicans, including the vast majority of church-goers, do not feel that the institution speaks for them in spiritual and ethical matters.
Of course, the Coventry image carries more than one message. While it offers a vivid image of a medieval structure unable to stand up to the forces of the modern world, it also calls to mind the stark beauty of ancient traditions and the feeling that to destroy them carelessly is an act of barbarism.
Still, I suspect it is fair to say that for the ‘other’ 96% of Anglicans (not to mention to 77% of the British population who aren’t Anglican!) would be far happier with – and far less irritated by – a version of Christianity that paid attention to what the women and children were doing. Especially when the women and children were as interesting as they turn out to have been! (Anyone who has read the prison diary of the third-century martyr Perpetua can tell you that early Christian women were not at all what you expect!)
One of the most interesting conversations I had this week was with a reporter from WIRED UK, Katie Collins, who was full of questions and ideas about how ideas travelled in the ancient world, trying to help me re-think the early centuries in terms her readers would recognize. Would friendship and family networks in the ancient Mediterranean have worked in the same way then as they do today? Even without Facebook and Twitter? And what was ancient ‘youth culture’ like, anyway? If you have a moment, do read her article – on the strength of Katie’s work, I think WIRED has fantastic potential as a venue for reaching a new audience with issues in ancient history.
Another highlight of publication week was a virtual day in Dublin. I had the privilege of speaking with two of Ireland’s top talk programmes, Today with Pat Kenny on RTÉ 1 and Moncrieff on NewsTalk Ireland. Irish radio is the BEST – but completely intimidating!
The two programmes are very different – Today has more of a vintage feel about it, while Moncrieff is more edgy – but in both cases, you felt as if you were stepping into a world where everyone takes brilliant ideas and rapturous eloquence absolutely for granted. In one case, as I was listening for my cue to go on-air, I found myself mesmerised by a by-stander’s description of restless villagers standing around waiting in the street – there was absolutely nothing to report, and it was STILL mesmerizing.
But the truly life-changing experience was listening to the segment directly before mine on Today, in which the Irish Senator Marie-Louise O’Donnell described a rally of vintage cars which she had recently attended. I suppose this was really a bit of demagoguery – a popular politician with a stunningly beautiful and silky alto voice gushing about a beautiful part of Ireland – and a wide variety of vintage cars – in terms designed to charm the voting public of a similar vintage. There was actually very little to say: the sky was blue, the Irish coast heroically beautifully, the cars were sleek and many of them had open tops. But HOW she said it!
Now I know what the Serpent of Paradise must have sounded like when Eve let herself be sweet-talked into picking the Forbidden Fruit. I’m afraid my own comparatively stuttering segment on Today was a let-down after Senator O’Donnell – chalk it up to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I suppose it is lucky that I am not running for office! But I may have found a great archibishop for the newly femme version of Christianity – I wonder if she could be sweet-talked into yet another career change?
For anyone who is interested, clips of the BBC, NewsTalk and RTÉ radio appearances will be posted on the Media Links page. Do click through, and post a comment if you get the chance!