Soft-peddling the Savior

Russell Powell — late of the ABC and now head of media relations for the Anglican Diocese of Sydney — suggested I take a look at the coverage given by the BBC to the Queen’s Christmas message.

In the pages of this blog I have been critical of the BBC’s coverage of religion. I have argued the corporation has at times displayed bias or disdain for religion and the faith component of news stories. My initial response to Russell’s suggestion was one of glee. Here was an opportunity to write a quick post that conformed to the narrative I had established in my previous posts.

Then I read the BBC article and found my assumptions were unfounded. The article entitled “Queen speaks of hope in 2011 Christmas Day message” was a workman-like piece of reporting that displayed none of the cant to which I had objected in other reports. Nevertheless I found the story to be off. I re-read the queen’s message, watched the video again, and attempted to shed my skin – hearing the queen’s words from a perspective outside my own worldview.

I have come to believe this report is unfaithful to the meaning of Queen Elizabeth’s Christmas message. To quote the Captain played by Strother Martin in Cool Hand Luke: “What we’ve got here is (a) failure to communicate. Some men you just can’t reach.”

What the Queen was saying about God appears not to have been understood by the BBC. Hence the Christian element of this profoundly Christian message was buried at the back of the story.

The British monarch has spoken to her subjects each Christmas since 1932. Wikipedia has a good summary of the practice, noting that the first message read by George V was written by Rudyard Kipling. This year’s message was written by Queen Elizabeth and taped on 9 Dec 2011.  The Duke of Edinburgh was hospitalized over Christmas with heart trouble and his brush with illness is not touched upon.

This year’s message speaks to the value of family in times of adversity – and begins with a discussion of the queen’s family. She then broadens the concept of family through the successive paragraphs of the speech, expanding the discussion to Britain, the Commonwealth and to the family of man. She then pulls back the focus on the family, recounting the marriage of two of her grandchildren and the sadness of those British families who have sons and daughters serving in Afghanistan.

So far, so good … a standard Christmas greeting that touches upon the highpoints of the year …  a royal version of the newsletter some stuff into their Christmas cards. But then the speech takes a turn.

the world is going through difficult times. All this will affect our celebration of this great Christian festival.

Finding hope in adversity is one of the themes of Christmas. Jesus was born into a world full of fear. The angels came to frightened shepherds with hope in their voices: ‘Fear not’, they urged, ‘we bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

‘For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Saviour who is Christ the Lord.’

Although we are capable of great acts of kindness, history teaches us that we sometimes need saving from ourselves – from our recklessness or our greed.

God sent into the world a unique person – neither a philosopher nor a general, important though they are, but a Saviour, with the power to forgive.

Forgiveness lies at the heart of the Christian faith. It can heal broken families, it can restore friendships and it can reconcile divided communities. It is in forgiveness that we feel the power of God’s love.

In the last verse of this beautiful carol, O Little Town Of Bethlehem, there’s a prayer: O Holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray. Cast out our sin and enter in. Be born in us today.

It is my prayer that on this Christmas day we might all find room in our lives for the message of the angels and for the love of God through Christ our Lord.

I wish you all a very happy Christmas.

At little less than 750-words, the queen’s message offers a solid statement on Christian belief and hope. I find it outshines the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Christmas homily and is clear, concise and powerful. A pedestrian Christmas greeting with commonplace sentiments becomes a lovely statement of Queen Elizabeth’s Christian faith.

What does the BBC do with this? It reports the speech in linear form, working through each section in turn and starts off with:

The Queen has used her annual Christmas Day broadcast to speak of courage and hope in adversity. … The Queen also spoke of “the importance of family”, and called the Commonwealth a family “in the truest sense”.

In her message, recorded on 9 December, the Queen said the Royal Family had been inspired by the courage shown in Britain, the Commonwealth and around the world.

She noted the resilience of communities in New Zealand after earthquakes, Australia after flooding and Wales after the mining disaster at Gleision Colliery.

The article notes Prince Phillip’s illness and her Christmas Day activities, offers quotes from the first half of the message on family, friends and communities, and then discusses the Queen’s dress, Royal Family news and related tattle.

The Queen’s Christian mediation comes at the close of the story, and is encapsulated in these phrases:

“Finding hope in adversity is one of the themes of Christmas,” she said.

“Jesus was born into a world full of fear. The angels came to frightened shepherds with hope in their voices: ‘Fear not’, they urged, ‘we bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people’.”

The monarch also said: “Although we are capable of great acts of kindness, history teaches us that we sometimes need saving from ourselves – from our recklessness or our greed.”

I cannot fault the BBC for omitting anything from their account of the Christmas message. But I do believe  it is a mistake to lead with the friends and family motif over against the power of her statement that Jesus Christ is not merely a wise man or moral exemplar, but God.  And it is through this God that we the families, communities and nations that are suffering can be reconciled and find peace.

In the ears of a Christian, the queen offers a meditation of God’s purpose in having his son become incarnate. In the ears of the BBC the Queen offers a Rodney King-speech — “Why can’t we just get along” – with a touch of Bill Cosby-like family sentiment.

Now is this fair on my part? Could it not be argued that in addressing a post-Christian audience, the BBC must use tropes that its listeners will understand? Would leading with platitudes and cliches familiar to its audience opens the door for mention of faith?

Or, as I have argued, leading with the principle statement of the message — faith in Christ is the way towards establishing peace on earth — is the better way to report this story. Even if such a message will seem foreign to many of its listeners.

There was no ambiguity in the queen’s speech. No half statements or hedged bets. These faults are found in the coverage.

What say you GetReligion readers? Am I being too hard?

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About geoconger
  • Mark Baddeley

    As someone living over in the UK, but who is not English, I don’t think you are being too hard – but my experience is that the English (especially the ‘chattering classes’, which are the core clientele for the BBC) have different communication rules than either Americans or Australians, so I could be mishearing as well.

    Part of my reason for thinking you’ve called this right, is how differently this Queen’s speech has been handled to a recent explicitly Christian speech by David Cameron, the PM. In that speech David Cameron stated that England is a Christian country – and the media (especially the BBC) highlighted this for immediate dissection with lots of airplay for people who strongly disagreed. And that seems ‘fair comment’ to me.

    But the Queen’s speech has been hardly discussed even though it is far, far more explicitly and expansively Christian in sentiment than David Cameron’s brief remark. And yet this speech of the head of the country is arguably even more a statement of the Christianness of England than a statement by the Queen’s Prime Minister.

    Nonetheless it has hardly been discussed – and I think that that’s because the Queen’s popularity and respect are high. Like the Beetles, she is one of the few things about which the English won’t tolerate disrespect or much flippancy. So, faced with a speech that they didn’t like, but couldn’t deconstruct given their attitude for the speaker, my observation is that the speech has dropped like a stone. No-one (other than English Christians) wants to talk about it.

    So a news-report that, ever so slightly, shuffles the bit that is grounded in Christian particularity – God’s purpose in the incarnation of his Son – into the background fits with the broader pattern I’ve seen here. The BBC reported the speech in the way that most English (especially the chattering classes) wanted it to be, and did so, as you say, while saying nothing but the truth.

    The Telegraph accomplished something similar with their reporting of it.

    It certainly wasn’t due to them not ‘getting’ the message though. In that, the BBC is, in my experience very different from American journalism as GetReligion interprets it. I have never heard as many clear explanations of elements of the Christian faith as I have on the BBC by journalists or their guests. Their grasp of the basics appears sounder than some Christians. This was, in my view, done deliberately, in order to repackage the message in a way more suitable to secular English people.

  • Stan

    I think it is impossible to please you. You apparently want the BBC to abandon journalism and preach the Christmas message. That is not their job. The journalist faithfully reports the speech, in the same order in which the Queen gave it. You seem to think that her speech gains power by culminating in a religious message but that the BBC’s report on it loses power by concluding with the religious message. In any case, the speech is widely available for those who want to hear the whole thing rather than an account of it, which by its very nature must be selective.

  • sari

    What a lovely speech, an unambiguous profession of faith coupled with universal sentiments.

    The BBC should have addressed the Queen’s explicitly religious statements, but not as statement of fact. Something like, The Queen stated her belief that “faith in C. is….” would have been very appropriate.Her beliefs are personal, and as an hereditary monarch rather than an elected official, she is free to express them without fear of negative consequences. Her subjects, however, are a diverse group; the BBC needs to account for their sensibilities as well.

  • R9

    The Queen had a religious message at the end of her speech, the beeb duly reported it. No big deal here.

  • teahouse

    I don’t want to overstress geoconger’s point but in contrast to what R9 said, the BBC did not simply report the speech but stopped before the final paragraphs. “We need to be saved from our recklessness and greed” was not the culmination of the speech.

    No one expects the BBC to preach the Christian message but it should give a full report on the speech, not stopping short.

    OTOH, the speech certainly did not contain the statement that “Jesus is God” nor did it call “faith in Christ … the way towards establishing peace on earth”.

    If the BBC had written this, it would have given the speech a spin, which it might have possibly given to a speech by a political figure, e.g. Mr Cameron, only then to tear it apart. But this is the Queen and hence cannot be criticized.

  • Marie

    The video linked above does not play for me, it says it’s private.

    • geoconger

      Reset the link … should work now.

  • Bill

    Teahouse #5 wrote: “…the speech certainly did not contain the statement that “Jesus is God…”

    No, but the British monarch referred to the Child Jesus as a “Savior,” “Christ our Lord,” and prayed “O Holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray. Cast out our sin and enter in. Be born in us today.” It’s hard to infer that she thinks of the Babe as just a super cute kid who will bring out the warm fuzzies in us all.

    British monarchs since the time of Henry VIII have been considered by themselves and their subjects to be equal to or better than any king on earth. The Queen obviously believes there is a King who reigns above any earthly power. Sounds pretty much like God to me. The BBC likely thinks it is doing Queen and country a favor by leaving out all that, you know, Jesus is God stuff.

    Being a cantankerous, old Texan-American, I thought lightly of the role of the Queen. Didn’t have one, didn’t want one. Didn’t we fight a couple of wars to get rid of one? What was covered in the press was royal privilege and gossip about Diana. Then, about 25 years ago I read Robert Lacey’s “Majesty.” What struck me was Elizabeth’s devotion to duty. In a way difficult for Americans to grasp, she is the embodiment of English culture, history and identity. Whatever she did was a reflection on her country and her people, and she was keenly aware of that.

    It’s good to remember that Elizabeth presided over a Britain of declining importance. She ascended the throne when the sun never set on the British Empire. Not an easy thing to to with grace and dignity.

    Two recent speeches the Queen has made have struck me as quite important and newsworthy: This explicitly Christian message and her greeting in the Irish language on Irish soil. (Martha, am I off the mark here? How has this been covered in the auld sod?)

  • http://!)! Passing By

    For curiosity, I checked other British papers:

    <The Daily Mail had a fuller accounty of the religious aspect of the speech.

    The Guardian excised all religion, surprise surprise.

    If The Times has a report, I can’t find it in Google. Ruth Gledhill has a column on it by reference, but I couldn’t get to it.

    Unless I missed it, only The Daily Mail allowed comments, which were generally of a tone higher than usual for British websites. Some of the Romper Room set came out to play, but a lot of positive comments as well.

    As far as the question geoconger posed, I thought the BBC report did ok on the religion angle. They could have gone as far as The Daily Mail, but I don’t see it as a necessity. As far as leading with family and friends, that’s what the queen led with, saving the most important for last. It seems reasonable (to my lay sensibilities) to report it the way she presented it.

    And from another irascible Texan: God Save the Queen!
    :-)

  • Mark Baddeley

    I don’t think it would have mattered too much what the order was in the reports. The key is how they handled this section:

    God sent into the world a unique person – neither a philosopher nor a general, important though they are, but a Saviour, with the power to forgive.

    Forgiveness lies at the heart of the Christian faith. It can heal broken families, it can restore friendships and it can reconcile divided communities. It is in forgiveness that we feel the power of God’s love.

    In the last verse of this beautiful carol, O Little Town Of Bethlehem, there’s a prayer: O Holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray. Cast out our sin and enter in. Be born in us today.

    It is my prayer that on this Christmas day we might all find room in our lives for the message of the angels and for the love of God through Christ our Lord.

    Three things stand out here, and all/some of them needed to picked up to capture what the Queen was saying:

    1. Forgiveness is at the heart of the Christian faith and is the solution we need. The Queen’s earlier message of hope finds its answer here – forgiveness is where we feel God’s power, and it can heal, restore and reconcile.

    2. The Queen calling Christ ‘our Lord’ and not just quoting ‘the Lord’ from the carol. That’s a big deal in its implications, and helped give the sense that Queen was speaking personally as well as formally.

    3. The stated desire, both in the quote from the carol and then the Queen’s statement of her prayer, that people would invite Christ in/find room for the message and the love of God in Christ. That moved this from simply being a (re)statement of the gospel to a statement plus an explicit call to respond in faith.

    These three ‘bits’ are where the Queen shows her hand as to the specific and particular elements of what the hope she is promoting is grounded in. I don’t think you can do justice to her speech without capturing some of them.

    It is the absence of these three elements, rather than the sequence, that makes me think the BBC has soft-peddled the Saviour.

  • 4ThreeSolas

    Thank you for noting the Queen’s speech and it’s coverage. I took time to look up the video on the BBC and watch it – and was pleasantly surprised at it’s clear focus on Jesus and the forgiveness He brings. I do think the coverage missed the forgiveness, but cannot really find that much fault with it, and I was quite impressed by the Queen’s clear presentation of the meaning of Christmas!

  • http://www.davidlrattigan.com David L Rattigan

    “It’s hard to infer that she thinks of the Babe as just a super cute kid who will bring out the warm fuzzies in us all.”

    Either Jesus is God or he’s a super-cute kid who gives us warm fuzzies? I didn’t realize those were the only two choices.

    The description “a saviour with the power to forgive” is actually quite broad, non-specific and open to multiple interpretations. Perhaps Her Majesty was the one doing the soft-peddling? The world only sometimes needs saving from itself? This forgiveness is about reconciling families, friendships, communities? What about being reconciled to a wrathful God? Conspicuously absent.

    The speech was unmistakably Christian, but I don’t think it contained anything that couldn’t be owned by Christians of all stripes — even this agnostic Anglican.

    As for “Jesus is God” and “Faith in Christ is the way towards establishing peace on earth,” these claims just weren’t there in the message.

  • teahouse

    Bill,

    Sure the Queen’s message was rooted in the Christian faith, in her Christian faith.

    Sure, she doesn’t think Jesus just another cute babe (though “a saviour” sounds a bit strange) and I quite strongly suppose she considers Jesus God (though that doesn’t necessarily follow from the statement).

    The point was that she did not say “Jesus is God” – summing up her message this way but be falsification.


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