Magazine

A Point of View: Why the world needs more sermons

  • 27 December 2015
  • From the section Magazine
South African priest delivering sermon Image copyright Getty Images

The world needs more sermons, says Howard Jacobson - even the non-religious can benefit from a great preacher.

For about three minutes every day of the working week, BBC Radio 4 listeners tuning to the Today programme can hear someone referred to as a "religious thinker" offer "reflections from a faith perspective on issues and people in the news". Were you to ask me aggressively whether I listen to Thought for the Day I would probably answer, "No, of course not, what do you take me for? I don't have 'faith perspective' hearing." And I'd be telling the truth in the sense that I don't go out of my way to listen, don't demand silence for the three minutes or so it's on, and don't as a rule much think about what I've heard. But this is not a principled shutting down of attention and sometimes I do find myself interested in a voice or a line of thinking, admire the clarity of an argument or the aptness of a metaphor, and inwardly congratulate the speaker on avoiding the common "faith perspective" pitfalls of triteness, condescension and far-fetched fabulation.

Image caption Reverend Dr Jane Leach delivers Thought for the Day, November 2015

You'd think that what I've just described hardly qualifies me as a fan of the slot and that I'd not care much either way if it were replaced. And yet the moment I hear a voice raised against it I grow passionate in its defence. Of those who do raise their voices against it, the most vociferous, obviously, are atheists and humanists. Not on aesthetic grounds. What gets their goat isn't that narrative predictability incident to most sermonising tailored for a secular age - the rabbit of optimism pulled from the hat of grief or horror, always with just 15 seconds of the sermon left to go, the pretend-rationality when all along we know the irrational lies in wait, the badly crafted bedside manner, whether of bland suasion or no less bland bloke-ishness, as though every listener must be lying in bed with frayed nerves. No, it's not the mode of telling but the thing told that atheists object to - a religious programme about religion. What about those of us who are non-religious? By confining Thought for the Day to "faith perspectives", atheists and humanists argue, the BBC is failing in its duty to reflect the diversity of beliefs of its audience.

This strikes me, I have to say, as somewhat dog-in-a-manger - if non-believers will allow a word like "manger" at this time of the year. Can they really be arguing that they don't get a look-in, that the schedules are fat with theologians discussing sin, transubstantiation, divine providence and the apocalypse the livelong day? If so, their radios pick up signals mine doesn't. I don't have an axe to grind, but it does seem to me that 180 seconds a day of explicit Christianising, Judaising, Islamising, Buddha-ising, Sikhising, hardly amounts to a religious monopoly of the airwaves.

Image copyright Getty Images

Correction. It would appear - and I am surprised to hear myself say this - that I do have an axe to grind after all. I have just read a statement put out by the Humanist Association some time ago, but still current, suggesting that if Thought for the Day won't make room for non-believers, it should at least be renamed "Religious Thought for the Day", thereby, and I quote, "acknowledging that it does not meet the needs of non-religious people". Hearing it put so baldly, I fall to wondering what exactly non-religious needs are, and whether, by insisting on a distinction between the religious and the non-religious, humanists aren't making an unpardonably limiting assumption about both.

I never think of myself as religious until someone else doesn't think of me as religious either. Then I grow defensive, invoking DH Lawrence, who certainly didn't write from any faith perspective but who often said he was glad he'd been brought up a Protestant - "Primarily... my novels must be written from the depths of my religious experience," he said. Or Matisse, who made a chapel for his own pleasure and when asked why he hadn't made it for God denied there was any meaningful distinction. "God is me," he explained.

Image copyright Alamy
Image caption Matisse's Rosaire Chapel at Vence Alpes-Maritime, France

Was that a religious or an irreligious thing to say?

Go anywhere near literature and art and you are soon embroiled in the mysteries of creation, the how and why of things you cannot understand, the nature of inspiration, the means by which you access powers that never feel entirely your own, the bounteous blasphemy of creating anything at all. You don't have to believe in an outside God to sense the presence of an inside God who isn't simply you feeling pleased with yourself. For an artist to claim he is not religious is to come out of the dark in which he does his work and maintain he is only productive in the light.

Here is not the place to discuss what a humanist means when he talks of the needs of a non-religious person. Though it seems to me he must be a strange creature whose needs at no point concur - either at the moment of birth or death, or at any time in between when terror strikes, or dejection takes hold, or the spirits rise in exaltation - with those of a religious person. "Our needs may well sometimes concur," I hear them answer, "but the language in which we discuss those needs, and the solutions to them we seek, are vastly different."

I understand that well enough. But I would equally understand the religious person who says their spiritual needs are not satisfied by Thought for the Day either. May I therefore propose a way in which the religious and the non-religious alike might draw sustenance from the same source. Don't make Thought for the Day less religious, make it more.

What would I give to turn on my radio in the morning and hear such words as the following:

"It is thy pleasure O God, and thy pleasure shall be infallibly accomplished, that every wicked person should be his own Executioner... Let him... embellish, and adorne himselfe as gloriously as he can; dine as largely and as delicately as he can; weare out as much of the afternoone, in conversation, in Comedies, in pleasure, as he can... he hath a conscience that will survive... he hath a sorrow that shall joyne issue with him when he is alone, and both God, and the devill, who doe not meet willingly, shall meet in his case, and be in league, and be on the sorrowes side, against him."

Is the spirit of that sermon, delivered by John Donne sometime in the 1620s, any more prohibitively religious than, say, Macbeth? Mention of God and the Devil nothwithstanding, is there anything in Donne's psychologising of wrongdoing - call it by the name of sin or not - that will not chime with the most obdurate of atheists? Do we not find common ground, we who believe or don't believe or simply don't know what we think, do we not listen with the same knowledge of a plagued conscience to the grave majesty of Donne's expression?


John Donne 1572-1631

Image copyright Alamy
Image caption John Donne's statue outside St Paul's Cathedral, London
  • One of the leading metaphysical poets of the Renaissance, with a hugely varied body of work ranging from sermons to sonnets, and elegies to pamphlets
  • Shakespeare's contemporary, he is known for both his love poetry and religious verse
  • Born to a Catholic family, he studied at both Oxford and Cambridge but could not graduate because of his faith; spent spells as a soldier, as a civil servant, and even in prison
  • Converted to Church of England after James I came to power, and took holy orders, rising to become the Dean of St Paul's

John Donne: The Poetry Foundation


Yes, it is the Bible we hear, grand in the oratory against transgression, small in the intimacy with which transgression is delineated - but would any man demur to the grandeur or the intimacy on the grounds that the Bible talks of a God in whom he can't believe? The mood of Donne's sermon may be religious, but whose experience does it exclude?

By all accounts, awe-struck congregants crowded in to hear Donne preach in St Paul's where, despite the sometime extravagance and abstruseness of his style, they fed on every word, groaned, grieved, wept and, if only in momentary intention, changed their ways. We assume they were Christian, but there are doubters in any gathering at any time and I'd be surprised if those with a weak faith perspective listened any less attentively than those whose faith was strong.

The chance of the BBC finding another John Donne and offering him the occasional Thought for the Day slot is, I admit, remote. Calling it a "Thought" admits the limits of a 21st Century audience's attention span. And so we get what satisfies neither the man of faith nor the humanist - a compromise between spirit and matter, acknowledging our impatience, our limited vocabulary and reading, our unwillingness to be thundered at, our arrogant spiritual autonomy, for all of which, attend my words, both God and the Devil, who do not meet willingly, will make an exception in our case, and be in league, "on sorrowes side", against us.

This is an edited transcript of A Point of View, broadcast on Sunday at 08:50 GMT. Catch up on BBC iPlayer

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