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Reviews of The Passion (BBC) - From Blog Entries

Last word on The Passion for the moment - must get on to other topics! Overall my opinion of this drama hasn't changed much. The portrayal of Mary I'm still not happy with, while I really got to like the portrayal of Jesus. My media column in today's Irish Catholic newspaper was devoted entirely to the programme and my review was generally positive. On the back page columnist David Quinn wrote a negative piece about it - he found this depiction of Jesus "the most unconvincing ever to come our way". Jesus as played by Joseph Mawle he found "insipid, uncertain, uncharismatic, unprepossessing". He wondered how such a man could ever attract any followers. He didn't like the way the apostles were quarrelsome, not just among themselves but with Jesus. In trying to avoid the error of making Jesus too holy and divine he reckoned they fell into the opposite error and portrayed Jesus as "effectively a man and no more". Thus miraculous events were portrayed in an ambiguous way.
Funny enough I shared many of these observations, though not as strongly, after watching the first episode. However this production grew on me as the episodes progressed and I found the resurrection scenes in particular very strong on the miraculous, though I realise not all critics I've read agree on that.
I followed a few of these reviewers as they too engaged with this drama through Holy Week. Matt Page's Bible Films Blog was especially comprehensive in it's coverage, while Doug Chaplin posted detailed and interesting reviews after each episode on his Metacatholic Blog. Giving a Catholic perspective various contributors reviewed it on the Jesuit Thinking Faith website.

Thinking today about how I might use clips from BBC's The Passion in my religion class. Had been doing religious themes in TV drama with my Transition Year students so this would be a suitable follow on, and normally after Easter I do some classes on the Resurrection with third year students. Up to now I've used the Resurrection scenes from Jesus of Nazareth, which haven't at all become dated and are still powerful and moving. Maybe for variety I'll use the last 20 minutes of The Passion this year, with plenty of discussion as the students may find the use of different actors for Jesus rather confusing. I'll be interested in hearing their reaction. When I come to do the Eucharist with Leaving Cert students prior to Graduation Mass I'll use the Last Supper scene, another of my favourite "set pieces" from this new production.

The Passion on BBC: Have just finished watching the final half hour episode of The Passion, so these are some preliminary thoughts. At the start I was a little disappointed - I began to wonder if the film was going to be coy about the resurrection. There were two Temple Guards instead of Roman soldiers, half guarding the tomb, no sign of any angels, lack of clarity about how much time had passed before the empty tomb was found by Mary Magdalen, talk of some of the apostles planning "something".
Then there was a gradual yet dramatic transformation - Mary met a man at the tomb, who didn't look like Jesus but she felt it could have been him. What was this - getting a new actor to play Jesus, after getting so used to Joseph Mawle? The producers keeping their options open on whether it was Jesus or not?
Then after lots of realistic bickering two apostles headed off on the road to Emmaus and met another mysterious stranger, more charismatic, which helped. What's this, I thought, now we have three actors playing Jesus? I thought this was a really bold way to convey the Emmaus story when Jesus was not recognised initially. The apostles invited him for a meal, and in a most powerful and emotional moment they really did recognise him in the breaking of bread - the way Jesus did it was just the way he had done it in the Last Supper scene. At that moment Mawle appeared again as Jesus, Jesus that had conquered death and really risen. Shortly after that he appeared to the doubting apostles and that too was a moving scene.
There wasn't exactly an Ascension scene. Jesus just departed into the crowds after a chat with Peter, reassuring him that he would be with them always. All in all this was a most striking presentation of events after the crucifixion.
If there was anything unsatisfactory apart from what I mentioned at the start it was that many post resurrection events were not portrayed - e.g. the doubting Thomas incident (James seemed to be a bigger doubter initially). Yet a lot of attention was given to the conflict between Caiphas and Joseph of Aramathea (left), and relatively speaking I'm not sure this plot line was worth pursuing in such detail. Caiphas was not portrayed as sympathetically in the previous episode when he handed over Jesus, but in this episode he was softened again. He felt he had done what was best for his people, and that as he saw it, he had not agreed to the death of an innocent man - he still regarded Jesus as a blasphemer (or so he said). He got a happy ending of sorts as his wife delivered a new baby.
Pilate was played fairly straight throughout, not rehabilitated, not a psycho, rough by our standards, perhaps half civilised in the context of the time. Even he had a return to Rome to look forward to.
Once again I wasn't that keen on the portrayal of Mary, still too bitter, complaining that God had broken her heart. In general I felt she was underused, as was Mary Magdalen throughout. I'll return to this topic for some more considered observations on the whole series, with some ideas for using parts of it in class when I get back to teaching religion after the Easter holidays.

Have just watched the third episode of BBC's The Passion. Preliminary thoughts: Once again I find the programme growing on me more and more, especially the central performance.
I particularly liked the way the Last Supper was done - starting cheerfully and ending on a sombre note. There was no hedging on the Eucharist. After the usual words Jesus added - "this will be your sacrament … this is how you'll bring me back among you", a rather interesting addition I thought. The presentation of the agony in the garden was reminiscent in visual style of the way it was done in Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, but Jesus got to express his agony in much more detail. Unlike the latter film however the scourging at the pillar was played down (perhaps in reaction to that film?) - we just got three representative lashes, with the camera focussed on the face of Jesus.
The way of the cross was quite short, with Jesus being crowned with thorns on the way, and a repeat of the children throwing red petals as they did in the Palm Sunday scene. This hurry seemed to be designed to convey how quickly the Jewish leaders wanted Jesus put to death, hoping it would defeat his cause and scatter his followers. There was no crowd on Golgotha, suggesting this might just have seemed an "ordinary" crucifixion to the locals at the time. Mary and John arrived a bit later, but in time for Jesus' death.
Jospeph Mawle's central performance was really genuine, affecting and convincing in the crucifixion scene. One curious thing - it was particularly obvious in this episode how the use of the word Jewish was being avoided - e.g. Jesus was described several times as "King of the Judeans". Was this to avoid any accusations of anti-Semitism? Maybe so, but it didn't really sound right. Maybe Jewish people will be even more offended by this ignoring or making bland of their name, race and religion. Would the title King of the Jews not also include Gallilleans, not just Judeans? One more episode to go Easter Sunday night. Interesting to see how the resurrection will be done.

I have lots to write about recent activities in school especially in relation to religious themes in TV drama, but I'm going to try and keep all my commentary on BBC's The Passion in one place here, and will get to other TV drama next week.
Already this year in class I've dealt with films on the life of Jesus, but after Easter I may use clips from the BBC production to update this module, but also to show yet another example of religion in TV drama. So far I really like the Palm Sunday scene and Jesus' conflict with the apostles over what's going to happen to him.
I have to be careful this week to concentrate more on the Holy Week story itself rather than this particular representation of it! However, because of the serialisation of it, as it runs through Holy Week it is in my thoughts quite a bit and new ideas occur to me daily.
As regards the human/divine issue, this production seems more to veer towards the human side of Jesus, especially in the first episode. The second episode balanced it a bit in what Jesus was saying about his mission and his resurrection. I'm looking forward to how they will represent the resurrection, and also to how they'll do the Last Supper. I doubt if we'll get a Leonardo type tableau, like director George Stevens went for in The Greatest Story Ever Told. Focussing entirely on the holy week events seems to me a good approach to a Jesus film, as it gives a tighter focus and avoids the excesses of sprawling Biblical epics. Mel Gibson used the same approach in The Passion of the Christ, using an even tighter time frame - from the striking Garden of Gethsemane scene to the Resurrection.
The only down side is that some of the great stories and incidents from the earlier parts of Jesus' life are missed, so we don't get the context of the Easter story. Gibson's film was much criticised for this, but he did try to overcome the problem by some of the intriguing flashbacks. If only we had more of those and less of the graphic violence!
The BBC production is particularly good at context, in the gritty atmosphere of Passover and in the conversations of the main players. There is plenty of Jesus' teaching, not always exact quotes from scripture. The fresh wording does grab the attention, as we can get too familiar with the well known sayings, but there's always a danger with people taking liberties with scripture. Yet, when only the words of scripture are used, as say in the Matthew series, when Bruce Marchiano played the warmest Jesus I've seen yet, it comes across as stiff and stilted in film terms.

Last night I got to see the second episode of the BBC's The Passion, this time a half hour episode. I’m getting to like Joseph Mawle’s portrayal of Jesus, perhaps just a matter of getting use to him in the role. I liked the scene where he discussed what was going to happen to him with the apostles. John, often portrayed as a gentle soul, had a particularly negative reaction to this and became quite shirty with Jesus!
It’s still hard to distinguish the apostles from each other – more work could have gone into giving at least some of them more distinctive personalities. Jesus was quite strong on the idea his sacrifice saving us from our sins, and in a neat ironic touch, Caiphas also spoke of one man being offered up to save the rest.
The softening of Caiphas continues, but he is edging his way towards having Jesus arrested and handed over to the Pilate (James Nesbit,above) for execution if he doesn’t repent and stop causing unrest during Passover. Other Jewish leaders, including a black Joseph of Aramathea, are not in favour of such a move. With this balance so far, I don’t think there’ll be any accusations of anti-Semitism against the programme.
A few more thoughts occurred to me about Sunday’s opening episode. I was just thinking how lacking in colour the whole production is – it’s all dull browns by day and dark blue by night, but the portrayal of Palm Sunday was striking – apart from the palms, the people were showering Jesus with red petals, perhaps a foreshadowing of the blood to come.
I’m still not enamoured by that scene with Mary the mother of Jesus. Obviously she loves him and seems grouchy on his behalf, but it’s as if she resents having been chosen for her role, as if it was foisted on her without her permission – she has a line that says something to the effect that the baby was in her belly before she knew it. But this doesn’t necessarily clash with the biblical version – maybe this is something that Mary says in the heat of the moment, under the pressure of seeing her son heading inexorably towards a horrible death.
Last time I noted that the production seemed to shying away from miracles. This time there was at least a mention, by Caiphas, of miracles that Jesus was reputed to have performed, though Caiphas himself was sceptical. And in this latest episode Jesus is very clear that he will rise again, leaving the apostles looking sceptical!
It’s useful to have the programme serialised through Holy Week, though I would have preferred to see six half hour episodes spread through the week rather than two one-hour and two half-hour episodes. For those who would like to see it again or catch up there’s a recap edition next Sunday afternoon at 2.15 pm before the final episode on Sunday evening at 7.30 pm (BBC 1).

Full marks this year to BBC for taking the Holy Week and the Easter story so seriously. With HBO they have produced a high budget dramatisation of the last week of Christ's life on earth leading up to the Resurrection. The Passion started last night on BBC 1, continues tonight and Good Friday and will finish Easter Sunday night. Based on last night's opener the signs are pretty good.
As with all film versions of the life of Christ the key issue is how Jesus himself is played. Joseph Mawle (left) is a more bedraggled than usual Jesus, but he has an appealing smile, a gentle and compassionate manner. At this stage he seems quietly confident of the mission he has from his heavenly Father. We see him preaching, tending to the sick, and forgiving sins, but so far there seems a reluctance to show physical miracles - even where the scriptural context seems to call for it - there was one scene reminiscent of the sick man by the pool of Bethsaida and the healing of another crippled man. He says to this man that his sins are forgiven, but there's no talk of taking up the bed and walking. This naturalistic approach was evident from the beginning when it was hard to pick Jesus out from the crowd of apostles - no telling music or reverential camera angles, unlike Jesus of Nazareth when there wasn't any doubt that the magnetic and intense Robert Powell was Jesus. For me Powell's is still the definitive portrayal.
Jesus' mother makes a brief appearance, but she's rather grouchy about the trouble Jesus is getting himself into ("I didn't ask for this" she complains, not quite the Mary of the Magnificat), but they part on good terms at least.
The highly charged atmosphere of Jerusalem at Passover is captured well, with its intermingling of political and religious culture. Jesus causes a stir by his arrival. Pilate is in town worried about unrest, and anxious to show that Rome is boss. The Romans are rough and cruel as always but the Jewish temple guards are portrayed more sympathetically than in Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ, while the Jewish high priests are also given a softer than usual treatment. So far Caiphas is a fairly sympathetic character, a family man trying to keep the peace and adopting a grin-and-bear-it approach to the Roman occupation. Judas is a spy for the Jewish religious establishment. At one stage tries to get him to see into his heart, but Judas is evasive and rather curiously, when he runs away Jesus says: "I'm sorry Judas".
The other apostles are hard to distinguish from each other at this stage.
I'll expand on these preliminary evaluations as the week goes on.

I've doing morality with 5th year students and over the last few days concentrating on choice, responsibility and consequences. By chance that very topic came up on the TV series Prison Break on Tuesday night last so I was able to use the relevant clip in class. ("He's a fan" muttered one student when I explained the storyline!) The main character Michael Schofield is a moral character - in the first series he had to break his unjustly imprisoned brother out of jail, and now is trying to break another prisoner out because the life of his nephew is being threatened. He wants to do the right thing and feels really bad about the harm he has inadvertently caused to innocent people along the way. In this week's episode he told his brother how tired he was of all these responsibilities and consequences. Then, having not allowed a young prisoner to join the latest escape attempt, he allows him to make the choice, but says he won't be responsible for this young prisoner. In between the two conversations we see a striking drawing on one of the walls of the jail - an upside down man skewered by a spear surrounded by what looks like the fires of hell! A symbol for the way he feels perhaps?

I'm continuing with my drama and religion module with Transition Year students - in the most recent class we looked at religious themes in Shakespeare - using extracts from Macbeth, Hamlet and Merchant of Venice, so it's all wonderfully cross-curricular! The extracts I use are on my Teachnet project site (here) and I use video clips of these extracts, borrowing from the English Dept video collection. The three extracts, with the accompanying texts on handout fit nicely into a double class, and of course it helps if you remind the students that they might be doing some of these plays for Leaving Certificate exams. The court scene from Merchant of Venice is particularly riveting for a class, especially if they don't know what's going to happen. Following Portia's great speech about "the quality of mercy" there is great tension as Shylock prepares to cut a pound of flesh out of Antonio.

Had a few spare classes with 6th year students after finishing my module early. Some of them complain about having to do religion when they could be doing Leaving Cert study (!) so I got together a worksheet (available on request - use contact link on left) on the moral issues in Othello, which they are studying as part of the English course. I thought it went reasonably well.
First we looked at how almost all of the seven deadly sins figured strongly in the play - they're all there except perhaps sloth, couldn't think of an example of that. Envy is one of the big themes of the play - the "green-eyed monster". Iago is envious of Cassio getting promoted over him and of Othello because he thinks (probably in the wrong) that Othello had an affair with his wife. Othello becomes envious of Cassio because, thanks to Iago's malicious rumour mongering, he thinks that Cassio is having an affair witrh his wife Desdemona. Lust is central too, though it features mostly when Othello wrongly imagines that Desdemona and Cassio are having an affair. Avarice is a strong motivation for Iago - he wants Cassio's job as Othello's lieutenant and he wants Roderigo's money. Gluttony didn't seem like an obvious one, but Cassio looses his job by overindulging in drink and allowing himself to be provoked into riotous behaviour. Because of his unjust suspicions Othello falls victim to wrath towards Desdemona, entirely loosing the run of himself and eventually murdering her. Finally, Othello also shows plenty of pride, especially nursing his wounded pride over the suspected affair, the way he tries to take the high moral ground in murdering Desdemona, fooling himself into thinking it's justified because she's dishonourable and he doesn't want her to ensnare more men! And his final speeches are dripping with pride as he seeks to ensure he'll leave a good reputation behind him when he dies (by his own hand).
Then we looked at how the seven moral commandments are broken by the characters in the play - fourth: Desdemona, it could be argued, dishonoured her father by eloping with Othello (the father certainly felt hard done by); fifth: there are several murders in the play; sixth: there are various hints and rumours of adultery, though mainly it's Iago spreading malicious rumours to bring down Othello; seventh: Emilia and Iago, her husband, effectively steal Desdemona's handkerchief - not a major crisis in itself, but it's a special one Othello gave her, and when Cassio innocently gets it thanks to Iago's machinations, Othello sees this as proof of the affair; eight: Iago's campaign against Othello is based a series of lies that has fatal consequences; ninth and tenth: there's a fair bit of coveting going on - Iago covets Cassio's job, Roderigo's money and even, briefly, Othello's wife.
So much ground to cover - I could have spent a week of classes on the topic.

I got great mileage out of the Three Wise Men in the first week back to school after Christmas. My freshest resource was the recently broadcast Liverpool Nativity (BBC) - a modernised version of the Nativity Story (see below for full review). Junior Cert students were quite positive but some 6th years were critical (they often are, and grouchy too!), not liking the use of modern music in such a context and criticising the acting and singing (I can see where they're coming from on that score). Mostly I just used the clips featuring the Wise Men, and even after seeing it several times I still enjoy it, especially where they bring the gifts and sing Lady Madonna. I also used some poetry, like Eliot's Journey of the Magi, but a few found this a bit downbeat fore the season. I got more positive feedback than I expected from the Powerpoint I did on the Wise Men in artwork through the centuries. Finally I used some music - including We Three Kings, the Roches' version, which was quite popular, especially with the juniors, as they liked the upbeat tempo. All the printed materials I used and the Poweroint show, are available on request (use contact link on left).

The most striking programme I saw over Christmas was The Liverpool Nativity on BBC - shown live on BBC 3 and then repeated on BBC 1 on the Sunday before Christmas. It was a modernised nativity play recorded live on the streets of Liverpool, featuring rock and pop music associated with the area. There was some slight controversy beforehand, but I thought the whole affair was entirely respectful of the Christian story.
It was the style rather than the substance that was unorthodox. The narrator was the Angel Gabriel! Soap actor Geoffrey Hughes (ex Coronation St I think) had "Gabriel" printed on his leather jacket, and wings painted on the back of it - subtle and imaginative I thought, rather than tacky. As the Annunciation approached he declared that Mary was a virgin, saving herself for her marriage to the beloved Joseph. Mary was a waitress in a Liverpool café, Joseph an asylum seeker trying to fit into his new country. Herod was transformed into Herodia, a ruthless and power hungry government minister with her own slimy spin-doctor, anxious to crush any messiah that might threaten her position. The Three Wise Men travelled by Rolls Royce, delayed on their way by the rush of last minute shopping on Christmas Eve!
The political subtext was less than subtle, with Herodia eroding civil rights to pursue her "war on terror", and talk of "régime change". She decided to score some political points with a roundup of asylum seekers, causing Joseph to have to be registered. To an extent I felt that a modern political agenda was being imposed on a timeless story, but then the political realities of the time were part of the original Christmas story, and pleas for a compassionate treatment of vulnerable people are still at the heart of that story. This wasn't claiming to be a historical presentation of the nativity, but a revisiting of an crucial event, seeing it through the lens of modern times, not a cheap effort to make it "relevant", but a creative and bold attempt to shake us into looking again at a story whose impact may have been dulled by everything from over familiarity to crass commercialism.
Much of the story was conveyed in song, and instead of opting to write new material for the occasion the producers chose songs associated with Liverpool. Obviously they weren't written with the nativity in mind, and not every word of every line fitted the context, but broadly they captured the spirit of the event, and this reworking gave them a whole new set of meanings. I, for one, won't hear them again without being reminded of this new layer of meaning related to the birth of Jesus. Needless to say, Beatles songs were prominent. Not surprisingly, All You Need is Love was the main anthem for the night, while Let It Be (sung as the shepherds and other visitors approached the crib) and Lady Madonna (sung by the Wise Men in the crib) seemed particularly suitable. Mary got to sing My Sweet Lord, but here it was in reference to her devotion to Joseph - their love story was very tasteful and convincing. I cringed when I heard one of the "shepherds" stating into John Lennon's Imagine. I know it's often seen as a deep meaningful song, but personally I find it bland - "imagine there's no heaven … and no religion too" as if such ideas were too divisive and had to be dumped to achieve world peace! Yet, whether by design or happy accident, the song was placed rather crucially - sung by a shepherd before the angels arrived to announce the good news. No need for such wishy washy and aimless sentiments after that!
Considering that the event was live across several Liverpool venues, with the actors dancing, running and singing, the few bum notes were understandable, and I loved the understated musical accompaniment - most songs were backed by simple guitar, violin and accordion arrangements, busker style, with an orchestra and choir for the big numbers.
On TV and Radio over Christmas there were plenty of carol services, plenty of religious songs on the mainstream music programmes, good coverage of religious services, and all that was welcome and important, but here was an imaginative programme that got thousands of people onto the streets of Liverpool to celebrate the Nativity without diluting the story, that got thousands more watching it on TV, and that blew out of the water any idea that the Christmas story hasn't got something compassionate and challenging to say to a 21st century audience.
Watching the programme I wondered what use I could make of it in religion class - mostly for next year. I normally show the Annunciation clip from Jesus of Nazareth, but this will make for an interesting contrast - Mary gets the news as she works in a café - Gabriel announces it to her in a disembodied voice only she can hear, and how she and Joseph cope with the news is really well done. After Christmas I normally do some classes on The Three Wise Men (more of that soon) and this year I will use some of the clips showing them meeting Herodia, and visiting the crib. When I do classes with Transition Year on religious themes in music and drama, many of the scenes should prove useful.

In English class have been studying Philadelphia Here I Come! by Brian Friel (comparatively with The Truman Show and The Importance of Being Earnest). Religion is part of the social background, but it’s not presented that positively. The Canon is in a long tradition of doddery/figure-of-fun clergymen, like Dr Chasuble in The Importance of Being Earnest, Fr Mulcahy in MASH, Rev Lovejoy in The Simpsons, you know the type. There’s the usual thing from Irish writers about the repressive/oppressive Church, especially in sexual matters, but there was one striking quote in a scene towards the end – the main character Gar is frustrated at the poor relationship he has with his father, it’s heartbreaking really, and he desperately wants to make sense of it before leaving for Philadelphia in the morning. As his father and the Canon play draughts/checkers the Private Gar makes a silent plea to the Canon: “you could translate all this loneliness, this groping, this dreadful bloody buffoonery into Christian terms that will make life bearable for us all … Isn’t this your job? - to translate? Why don’t you speak then? Prudence, arid Canon? Prudence be damned! Christianity isn’t prudent – it’s insane!”. In the context I take this to be a roundabout compliment to Christianity. Discuss!

Had a look at The Tudors on TV 3 recently. The production values are high, the costumes and sets are impressive, the actors are excellent - Sam Neill as Cardinal Wolsey, Maria Doyle Kennedy as Katherine of Aragon, Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Henry VIII to name but a few, but I couldn't warm to it. It was unnecessarily crude, the foul language seemed anachronistic, and Henry made for a particularly repulsive character, especially played by Myers as a spoiled, selfish, petulant young fellow, a 16th century rock star! Henry's divorce case and the resultant conflict with Rome were central at this stage - as Henry was increasingly thwarted he started toying with the idea of becoming his own little pope in England. Thomas Moore figured increasingly coming across as a calm man of conscience, Henry insisted on him becoming Chancellor, though Moore was reluctant, aware of the storm clouds ahead. Henry knew Moore's opinion of the marriage dispute, but promised that it wouldn't cause him any trouble in his new office. Oh well, that didn't work out so well.

Meanwhile, in class I’ve managed to use a good few artistic resources. Continuing the “Images of God” classes in third year I used clips from Oh God You Devil, with George Burns as a genial old God – I used the scene late in the film where the main character contacts God by phone! The Insight video Jesus B.C. has its problems but the scene where Father Son and Holy Spirit discuss what to do with the rebellious human race is a useful attempt (the only one I know of) to portray the Trinity – with three actors – the Holy Spirit is portrayed as a black woman! Martin Sheen’s portrayal of God as a cocky young man in a white suit in the Insight video The Walls Came Tumbling Down sparked a few interesting comments – I used the opening 10 minutes. Would have used the scene from Bruce Almighty where Bruce meets God for the first time (hilarious) but my copy of that has gone astray. Tomorrow I’ll complete this module with a prayer service, which I’ll write up soon as I’ll be using some appropriate music along with scripture readings.

After a month back in school I still don't feel settled in. Trying to use some artistic resources as usual, but it's hard to find time to use new ones. Did use the Confession scene from Prison Break when I was doing the Sacrament of Reconciliation with 6th years, along with my older material e.g. confession scene from X-Files. Taped another recently, though too late for class, from Only Fools and Horses. Not my favourite programme. The confession scene had the main character feeling bad that a scam he got caught up in involved swiping lead off the Church roof. He seemed genuine, but the resulting leak in the ceiling inspired him to set up a weeping statues scam to raise funds to save an old folks home. Not really offensive, but not sure of it's educational value! You'll get a flavour of the episode here on YouTube. Might add it to the video page later.

I didn't think I'd be disappointed with Prison Break, the US drama series back for a third season on RTE 2 last Thursday night. Fair play to RTE for getting it first on this side of the Atlantic, but I'm beginning to wonder if the producers should have ended it on a high last season. The first season concentrated on efforts to break an innocent man out of a Chicago jail, the second serried followed the exploits of the prisoners on the run and maintained high standards of plotting and character development. Now, rather implausibly, many of the same characters are back in jail, this time in Panama, and we're set up for another jailbreak. The Chicago jail was bad enough, but this one is completely savage, making for some very uncomfortable viewing. I won't be surprised in the Panamanian government starts kicking up.

I see a spectrum - on one end obvious respect, and on the other blatant blasphemy. The difficulties arise when you get near the middle, where artistic expression in particular treads a fuzzy borderline.
The Simpsons treads that line often, digging more at our human expressions of faith rather than the faith itself. Another animated series, God The Devil and Bob, offended some religious people with influence and it was pulled from the schedules in the USA, while others saw it as being quite respectful even if it was a bit raunchy at times. Jesus: The Guantanamo Years is a comedy show by Aibe Philbin Bowman, working the conceit that Jesus, being a Middle Eastern bearded man on a mission, would have been hauled in by US immigration and sent into internment. On Saturday Edition on Newstalk last weekend he defended the show against DUP councillor Christopher Stalford from the North, who took issue with him using Jesus like this. Stalford insisted he wasn't against freedom of expression, or seeking for the show to be censored or banned and it was worthwhile hearing his point of view getting a good airing. But his case was seriously undermined when he made out that this kind of thing wasn't funny, even though he hadn't seen the show! I don't subscribe to the idea that you can't criticise anything unless you've experienced it personally (e.g. drunkenness, or an infamously pornographic film) but Stalford just wasn't convincing in his arguments, while Bowman came across as being respectful of Jesus, and actually supportive of what he taught - arguing that the prejudice shown towards those of Middle Eastern origin was not consistent with the teachings of Jesus. Mind you his claim that his show "totally understood" Jesus was over the top. He covered other bases carefully - he was quite happy with any terrorists in Guantanamo being jailed after a fair trail, appreciated that the USA was a much better country than many others, but felt that it was undermining the values that had made it so good. I checked out a clip from the show on the internet ( and while I was a bit uncomfortable with him playing Jesus in comedy stand up (complete with symbolic crown of thorns), I really couldn't argue that it was disrespectful, though I thought it would be funnier and more dynamic.

Meanwhile, drama series Prison Break is becoming more intense by the week. Now that RTE 2 is showing double episodes it's like watching a movie every Monday night. Last week's episodes had the main character becoming so paralysed with guilt for all the unintentional destruction he has caused that he goes to confession (to see this scene go to the videos page). Michael Scofield is basically a moral character, worried about how he has let the ends (freeing his innocent brother, who had been sentenced to death) justify the means (allowing destructive people and forces to be unleashed to further his plan). It's a rough show and well deserving of the mature audience tag, but the moral viewpoint is way ahead of the competition.

Just before the holidays I did a class on religious themes in animated TV drama, bringing the drama module to an end. I had previously given as homework an assignment to write about religious themes in a drama of the students' choice, and some wrote about The Simpsons, South Park or Family Guy.
After discussing some of these we concentrated on The Simpsons, and the students were very quick to come up with examples from a wide variety of episodes - chiefly the one where Homer invents his own religion, the time when Bart sells his soul, the episode where Flanders is portrayed as the Devil (one of the Halloween specials). The general consensus seemed to be that The Simpsons wasn't disrespectful to religion as such, but was just a laugh, not to be taken too seriously. Of course some critics do take it seriously, some finding fault, some finding it disrespectful, but then some say it's one of the main shows on TV that feature religion regularly, and while fun may be made of the foibles of some believers and clergy, there is never an attack on religion as such, and the show can be quite positive at times - e.g. the negative consequences of Bart selling his soul, Marge getting her children and husband to church every Sunday. Click here for an article that discusses these issues. Personally I enjoy the show, and would be inclined towards the positive interpretation, but I can also see that children may just see it as knocking religion, and may miss the subtleties. There are obvious problems with Flanders or Rev Lovejoy being seeing as the typical "religious" people. In class I used clips from the episode where Homer invents his own religion that makes no demands on him (could be seen as a send up of a la carte Christians). God appears in this one so it's also useful for classes on images of God. I also used a clip from the Halloween episode where Homer sells his soul for a doughnut. The students weren't familiar with it but I also used a clip from God The Devil and Bob, an animated series from a few years ago. A rather genial God challenges a fault ridden Bob to put things right in the world, while a suave devil tries to derail his efforts. It caused lots of controversy in the USA where it was eventually pulled off the airways, while BBC and RTE showed the full series. It had a Catholic religious adviser, (the late Fr Ellwood Keiser, who produced the imaginative Insight videos that are still used in some schools), and is very positive towards God and humanity. I really like it and used a clip from an episode where Bob's wife nearly looses her soul to materialism and gambling. It is quite raunchy in spots, so care has to be taken in school use.
I'm conscious that using programmes like The Simpsons in RE class could be seen as dumbing down the religion class, as being overly trendy, but in small doses, especially in the context of a course on religion in the arts, I think it's useful to tease out certain religious themes in a fun way, hopefully encouraging the students to be more critically aware of the media culture they are immersed in. It's an opportunity to highlight the good will in so many programmes, and on the other hand to draw attention to negative religious stereotypes.


In class I've been doing religious themes in TV drama. I started with a brainstorm from the students on what TV dramas they've seen that featured religious themes, and among the programmes that featured in the feedback were Father Ted, The Simpsons, Lost and Ballykissangel. I then showed some relevant clips, which were spread over two double classes. These are clips I have built up over the years and keep adding to, though not as diligently as before. Hard to find the time. I don't like using too many old clips, so I was glad to be able to show a clip from an episode of Lost which been on a few days previously - this was a scene where the Hurley character had prayed for enlightenment and got it. I also used a few earlier Lost clips - including the scene where Claire and her baby are baptised by Mr Eko. Some of my Lost clips are actually lost, so I had better trawl through my videos and catalogue everything. I used some clips from the X-Files as well, though as time goes on students are less familiar with this series. My article on the religious themes in the X-Files is on the articles section of the website. In one scene one of the main characters, Scully, is saying the rosary (you don't see that too often in TV drama), while her partner Mulder is blowing the lid on yet another government conspiracy. I also used a clip of Scully going to confession, where she talks about being afraid that God is speaking but that no one is listening.
I used a short Father Ted clip just to illustrate a point about stereotyping of nuns and priests and to raises issues relating to the respectful treatment of religion. However I don't particularly like the underlying attitudes in the show and was somewhat reluctant. The attitude of the boys was that it was only a bit of fun. Joan of Arcadia got a look in as well - the US show where God appears to a young girl in various guises. A clip from 7th Heaven was necessary to be comprehensive, though I got the feeling some of the lads didn't like it. I used a nice clip from a popular (but rough and sometimes adult in nature) series Band of Brothers, which is about the aftermath of D-Day. In an early episode a captain reflects and prays on the day's events, and promises God that if he survives the war he'll live a peaceful life. My Ballykissangel clips tape has gone missing, but I showed clips from Paradise Island, the American version, a short-lived series which was quite enjoyable. Next week I hope to do a class on relevant animated series, especially The Simpsons and God, The Devil and Bob. More of that anon. I plan to turn these clips into digital files so I can play them from the laptop, perhaps as Powerpoint presentations.

Last Friday we moved on to religious themes in Drama. After a general discussion on why drama is a good vehicle to convey the gospel, we worked on three extracts from Shakespeare. All the scenes I used, complete with commentary and audio clips of the speeches are on my second Teachnet site ( These were the scene from Macbeth where he wonders about killing the king (great for discussion of conscience), the scene from Merchant of Venice where Portia outlines the value of mercy, and the scene from Hamlet where Claudius tries to pray, but his efforts to repent are thwarted because he isn't willing to give up his ill-gotten gains. In class we read through each scene first and then I showed the relevant video clip - most schools should have copies of the plays on video/DVD. I used the BBC versions of Macbeth and Merchant of Venice and the Kenneth Brannagh version of Hamlet (some versions omit this great scene). A nice touch is the way he sets this attempted repentance in a confession box, but as always check it in advance as the scene ends with a gory moment that isn't in the script! I usually stop the clip just before it.

I'm doing Images of God with third year boys at the moment. Got the first to "draw God" - a great exercise that provides many talking points as I ramble around the classroom, giving as much praise to the blank pages as to the human-looking depictions of God. Mind you I'd say the blank pages are more a reflection of students being off-task than reflecting on God as invisible spirit. I get great fun out of asking why so many put beards on God. Some student will usually talk about beards being a sign of wisdom at which point I stroke my own beard and say thanks very much! Today I continued with the theme by showing video clips with various depictions of God. Many of these are hard to get now, but are from the old American Insight videos that Veritas shops sold. For example there's the scene in Packy where the main character meets God (Bob Newhart) after he dies eating a chicken sandwich. This deals with the expectations people have about God. In a clip from the film Almost an Angel, Paul Hogan meets God (Charlton Heston) also after death. This is a more conventional representation - old guy, big white beard, cloak and floating on clouds with heavenly music in the background. A young Martin Sheen plays God in the Insight video The Walls Came Tumbling Down. A young God makes for an interesting image but he comes across as rather a show off - perhaps the old character he appears to needs to be gizzed up in this way. Bruce Almighty is a very funny film, though it has its crude moments. I used the scene where the Jim Carey character meets God (Morgan Freeman) for the first time. It's popular with students and makes some useful points. This is one of the few "black" god images I've come across, and he comes across as caring and powerful but also playful. I do point out that of course Jesus is the ultimate image of God, but at this stage I don't get into the ways Jesus has been portrayed on screen. An Insight video Jesus B.C. tries to portray the Trinity using three actors (the Holy Spirit is a black woman!), it's an interesting effort but the dialogue is a bit stodgy in spots and it is too American in flavour. And you have the silly notion of the three persons of the Trinity arguing with each other, with the Holy Spirit accusing Jesus of chauvinism! All in fun of course.

I stumbled on an American sitcom today (RTE 1 12.30 pm) in which prayer figured strongly - rather unusual. In The King of Queens the main characters are in a Catholic parish in New York, and in this episode a husband and wife argue over prayer. He thinks she's overdoing it, but she persists, and anyway he prays for his own stuff - like success for his team in a crucial match. . As the dialogue hots up the exchanges are very funny, but always respectful and even warm. The husband says it's like they're on a prying spree, like the Bonnie and Clyde of prayer! He reckons prayer should be left to those who know how to use it. He accuses her of praying for trivial stuff, but she knows God is "a smart guy" and can distinguish between the trivia and the serious issues. Might watch this again, though daytime TV goes against the grain.

There's something to be said for this time of year when some students start to drift away. Had a much better than usual 6th year religion class today with small numbers. We were doing the Eucharist, and the other day one of the students mentione seeing The Manchester Passion over Easter on BBC (see entry below for Easter 2006) so I brought that in today and played my favourite scene - the Last Supper. It seemed to go down well, prompting plenty of questions. Have wearing out the new Springsteen album - Ok so there's no original material, but those old songs, icluding a few gospel numbers, are given a major revival, or as Bruce puts it on the accompanying DVD "recontextualised". We have some great old hymns that could do with the treatment, but are enough of our top contemporary performers well disposed enough? Any chance of Christ Moore singing Soul of My Saviour (soulfully!), or Mary Black doing Sweet Sacrament Divine? Any more ideas?