Broadcasting Faith and Fantasy

David Boulton contributed this talk to the 2002 SoF UK annual conference.

I have spent my life telling stories. I'm a journalist, and I know that puts me among politicians and estate agents as the despised and rejected of men, and several steps below prostitutes, who only sell their bodies, not their souls. But as a journalist, in print and broadcasting, it has been my business to tell stories and sell stories. I'm talking about short stories and tall stories; good stories, news stories, old stories, recycled stories, elevating stories, sob stories, imaginative stories, very imaginative stories - and even true stories. I have written stories for print and for television, researched stories, directed stories, produced stories. I have dealt in facts and fictions, in faith and fantasy. That's the story of my working life. And now, in my prime, as a member of the Broadcasting Standards Commission, I adjudicate on complaints about other people's stories, measuring them against codes of good practice (which are themselves stories I have helped write), and pronouncing on their fairness or accuracy or conformity to something Parliament in its wisdom calls "generally accepted standards". I live and move and have my being in stories. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

I'm going to talk first about secular stories, then about religious stories, and finally - you have been warned! - about the Sea of Faith story.

Secular stories

We are all swimming in this sea of stories, as creators and consumers. We make up stories, but we are also made by stories - and I'm talking here about factual stories, journalism, as well as fictional. Stories make sense of an intrinsically senseless world. To think, to imagine, to be conscious, is to begin to put stories together. But the story of story-telling is itself a most astounding story. Let's take a moment to think about it.

Once upon a time every community had its own appointed story-teller, whose job it was to tell and retell its myths and sagas and its old, old stories. Before writing was invented, the stories were stored in the collective memory. The only objective existence a story had was in particular configurations in the trillions of connections between the billions of neurons in each human brain: that's all. Stories gave a community a necessary sense of who they were, where they had come from, where they were going, and what life and death, love and sex and power might mean to them. Stories expressed both the consciousness and the conscience of the communities in which they were told. It is worth remembering that, until the 17th century, there was no separate word for consciousness. The word "conscience" did duty for both - as it still does in many languages. When Shakespeare said that "conscience doth make cowards of us all", we really have no idea whether he was making a point about our consciousness, our general awareness, or about conscience, our moral awareness.

So our first stories were oral. Then we learnt to write them down, and they came to exist in symbolic marks on stone, on vellum, on paper. Five hundred years ago we began to print them in moveable type and distribute them in books, broadsheets, and, by the seventeenth century, in popular newspapers and magazines. Just over one hundred years ago we learnt how to tell stories in successive frames of photographs on celluloid, and cinema revolutionised and industrialised fantasy and imagination. Three quarters of a century ago, stories began encircling the world in seconds, first by sound radio, and a few years later by television. Within the space of a single generation, the open fireplace, which had been the focal point of the living room ever since woman learnt to domesticate fire, was replaced in that role by a square box which told stories made on earth but bounced off satellites deep in space. Only a quarter of a century ago came the home computer which, linked to other computers in the world-wide web, gave us access to almost every story ever told.

These new ways of telling stories didn't just replace the older ways. The story is much more complex than that. Thirty years ago I produced a World in Action programme which confidently predicted that by the end of the twentieth century books and newspapers would be dead. Every home would have a special kind of TV set on which you could tune in to the electronic Grauniad or Daily Torygraph, or the latest novel, or bonkbuster, or biography, or whatever. It was an accurate prediction of the internet before the PC was invented. But it was as hopelessly wrong in supposing that electronic media would replace print, as were earlier predictions that television would kill the cinema. What has happened in the last thirty years is that, despite the vast increase in electronic communication, more books, more newspapers, more magazines, more films are being produced than ever before. Let me sock you with statistics. Every week (according to Secretary of State for Media, Culture and Sport, Tessa Jowell, speaking in the Commons on the Draft Communications Bill, May 7 2002) we watch about 1.2 billion hours of television, listen to over 1 billion hours of radio and buy 100 million national, regional and local newspapers. Every year we send several billion text messages - and if you haven't yet discovered the joys of text, be sure your children have. That's a lot of news stories, true stories, fictions, factions and fantasies. So many stories, and so little time!

Some stuff about my own experience. After a false start as an accountancy clerk who had difficulty mastering the difference between an invoice and a receipt, I managed to sell an article to a magazine for three guineas. This gave me faith and confirmed me in my favourite fantasy: that I was a writer. When a publisher offered me an advance of 200 for what was to be my first book, I told my boss what he could do with his invoices and receipts. When the 200 ran out, I found a job on a newspaper, and learnt the difference between a good story and a bad one. A good story was one which sold papers, a bad story was one which didn't. Later I came across a definition of news which was more to my liking: news is what someone somewhere doesn't want you to print.

After a few years on small campaigning newspapers - Tribune and the CND paper Sanity - I was seduced into broadcasting by Sidney Bernstein, chairman of the Granada Group. My first programme assignment was as a researcher on a daily news magazine programme, Scene at 6.30. Scene was a lively, popular programme, and it demanded lively, popular stories. I particularly remember being asked to find the biggest and the smallest dog in the North and bring them into the studio. I did my research most diligently, and I still maintain it wasn't my fault when the huge mastiff opened its jaws and virtually bit the head off the tiny chihuahua.

There was no place for such frivolity when I moved on to the weekly current affairs programme World in Action. World in Action had made its name by taking current affairs out of the studio and into the homes and workplaces. It took advantage of the invention of new light-weight film cameras to go out and tell its stories from the point of view of real people, not just politicians. It is hard, today, to recollect just how new and odd that seemed. The first two WiA programmes I produced were portraits of the Protestant working-class community in the Shankill Road, Belfast, and the Catholic working class in the Falls, immediately after the 1969 cross-community riots. Just ordinary people pouring their hearts out about their grievances, hatreds, prejudices, hopes, filmed in their grim, grey streets, and in their houses which, in the late 1960s, still lacked inside toilets. The contrast with antiseptic studio discussions by politicians could hardly have been greater. My two programmes were condemned by Sir Hartley Shawcross, the former Attorney-General, as Marxist propaganda. Two of my subsequent programmes on Northern Ireland were banned by the Independent Broadcasting Authority. Stories about real people in the real world were dangerously subversive.

Even more important than WiA's innovation in finding new angles from which to pitch the story was its abolition of the presenter-reporter, the in-vision storyteller. Instead, the narration was delivered anonymously by an off-camera voice. The idea was to eliminate the celebrity personality element: no smarty-pants young men or alluring young women to distract attention from the story itself. We believed that the anonymous voice carried more authority and objectivity. We called it the voice of God (and this was before the days of post-modern irony!). Today I would acknowledge that the appearance of objectivity was bogus. What we were really doing was replacing the voice of the presenter, not with the voice of God but the voice of the producer. Was this a manipulation of the viewer? It certainly opened up some vital questions. Where does this story come from? Who is telling it? Where does the power lie?

Filmed current affairs opened another can of worms. A live studio interview or discussion is just that: what you see is what you get. A filmed documentary is something else. For a start, we would generally shoot on a ratio of 12:1, meaning that for each programme we shot 12 times as much film as we actually used - around 6 hours for a half-hour programme. This gave the editor a great deal of power - the power of selection. You can shoot 6 hours of reality footage, then make a hundred different half-hour stories from it, just by selection of shots and sequences. And of course this crucial selection process is entirely hidden from the viewer. Today, more than thirty years after I first joined WiA, much of my time on the Broadcasting Standards Commission is taken up with adjudication of complaints about misleading and unfair editing. Story-telling is not an morally neutral, value-free exercise.

If you had asked us, in the 60s, 70s and 80s, what we thought we were doing as broadcast journalists, I'm sure we would have answered in terms of "finding out the truth", telling true stories. We were scornful of tabloid journalism which, it seemed to us, was becoming ever more cynical about truth, accuracy and integrity. But we were even more scornful of the new breed of media academics, the semiologists and precursors of a coarse version of postmodernism, who told us there was no such thing as truth, no such thing as a fact, no such notion as accuracy, and no such me as me. If, when I edited WiA, one of my producers, commissioned to investigate corruption in the Fraud Squad, had accused the wrong copper of being the bent one, and had then excused himself with some semiological nonsense echoing Pontius Pilate's "What is truth?", I would have sacked him on the spot - not least because getting it wrong could land us in the libel courts and cost us a year's programme budget. Today, good journalism, good factual story-telling, has to recognise that truth, accuracy and fairness are more complex, more problematical, than we once thought. To every story there are many angles. Truth does have more than one true face. But tell me that truth and accuracy are chimeras, that they don't matter any more in our post-modern world, and I'll suggest you'd make a better spin doctor than a reporter.

WiA took me round the world, and got me kicked out of more countries than an asylum-seeker. Communist Czechoslovakia, the Colonels' Greece and the torturer's Turkey all threw me out. I was barred from Southern Rhodesia and South Africa, and I fled Idi Amin's Uganda. We told a lot of stories someone somewhere didn't want told. I met and interviewed dictators and dissidents, got to ask President Nixon if he was still a Quaker, asked Harold Wilson what he really thought of the unions as we peed side by side in the Granada loo, and introduced the nation to an unknown conviction politician named Margaret Thatcher... Well, we all make mistakes! Incidentally, WiA was a complaining programme! There was some discussion earlier in this conference about the merits of being uncomplaining. Well, we complained all the time, on behalf of others. We had a motto: "To comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable".

In the late 70s I formed the Granada Dramadocumentary Unit to develop what was then a new form: a documentary which borrowed the conventions of drama, using actors to reconstruct events. It was, and still is, a controversial form, called "faction" by its detractors. Dramadocumentary enabled us to tell stories which couldn't be told by conventional documentary means. No cameras ever had access to the dramatic events of 1968 when the Soviet leadership put a stop to the Prague Spring by invading Czechoslovakia, arresting the Czech Communist leader Alexander Dubcek and the whole Czech politburo, incarcerating them in the Kremlin, and blackmailing them into abandoning their liberal reforms. But we obtained a detailed blow-by-blow account, written by one of the Czech party secretaries and smuggled out of the country. We used this to reconstruct the invasion and the way in which Brezhnev and the Soviet leaders broke the resistance of Dubcek and his colleagues. I remember the Soviet Ambassador coming to see us at Granada to formally request that we withdraw the programme. We offered, instead, to fund a parallel programme based on Soviet records, showing the suppression of the Prague Spring from the Soviet viewpoint. We would show both sides of the story. Our offer was refused.

The dramadocumentary form gave us new ways of telling stories, but it also produced new dilemmas. What weight should we give to dramatic values, and what to the often conflicting values of documentary? How would audiences know what was fact and what was fiction? Should we tell them, with captions, for instance, or should we leave them to work it out for themselves. Did it matter? What problems arise by representing real people with actors? Leonid Breznev wasn't in a position to complain, but suppose a dramadocumentary were made about this Sea of Faith conference. Wouldn't it make a difference whether Don Cupitt were played by Colin Firth or Tim Piggot-Smith?

Meanwhile, as I was telling factual stories in fictional form, my wife was busy telling fictional stories with as close a likeness as possible to real life. Anthea was a story-line writer on Coronation Street, the queen of soap operas, drawing a regular audience of between 15 and 18 million viewers an episode in Britain alone, and exhibiting its version of northern working-class life in another dozen countries. I once watched it in the Friendship Hotel, Beijing, with Ena Sharples' Mancunian wit in Chinese sub-titles down the right-hand side of the screen. How they translated "is 'e eckaslike?" or "flaming Norah" I never found out. Thinking up story lines for the Street wasn't just a matter of letting your imagination run riot. It was more like plotting chess moves, with several concurrent stories interwoven, and all dependent on the availability of key actors. I remember Anthea coming home and telling me she had just killed Val Barlow, electrocuting her with a faulty iron as she dutifully pressed Ken's shirts. Anne Reid, who played Val, had chosen not to renew her contract, so she had to be disposed of. Val was a popular character, and the letters of condolence poured in. Good story-telling often blurred distinctions between real life and fictional representations of it, between fact and fantasy, in the minds of many viewers and listeners.

All this makes today's mass media story-tellers very powerful people. The potential for emotional and cultural manipulation is obvious. It has become a commonplace observation that the media, and television in particular, have replaced the priesthood as purveyors of faith and fantasy, as interpreters of the stories which give our lives shape and context and meaning. If there is any truth in this, then we have to learn to be as critical of the new priesthood as we are of the old. It is vital to ensure that viewers, listeners and readers are made aware of the different kinds of stories they are told, aware of who is telling them, aware of how they can be manipulated, aware of the power relations behind all exchanges. We need to stimulate critical awareness of the commercial and ideological motivations of those who live by telling and selling stories: an educated understanding of the complexities of the story-telling machine. We need to teach discernment. This is what I mean by "media literacy". The Broadcasting Standards Commission, on which I have served for the past six years, has been pressing successive Governments to put more resources into media literacy, in schools, in further education, and in the print and broadcasting media themselves, and build it into the remit of the new Office of Communication (Ofcom) which will replace the present regulatory structure in 2004. A media-literate society is one which denies the story tellers a monopoly of power, which knows one kind of story from another, and understands when it is being got at.

Religious stories

What is the relevance of all this to Sea of Faith and the world of religious discourse? Since the Enlightenment, and particularly since the middle of the last century, we have come to understand religious culture as itself just one more mighty mesh of stories: of myths and legends, fables and fantasies, histories and chronicles, poems and parables. But there remains as much confusion about the nature and function of these stories as there is about our secular stories. Are they "true" as a World in Action report claims to be true? Or are they true to life, as Coronation Street claims to be true to life? Or do they mix the genres, like a good dramadocumentary? When is faith pure fantasy, and when can fantasy be the basis of faith? What is the ideological motivation of the story-tellers? What are they selling? In whose interest are the stories told? Are the Bible stories fictional stories about a real God, or is God himself no more, if no less, than the story of himself - the fictional protagonist of our collection of God stories, as Hamlet is the protagonist of Shakespeare's play, and Frodo Baggins the protagonist of Tolkein's Ring trilogy? These questions really matter. They are surely the central questions confronting anyone who is still bothering to take religious discourse seriously. We do not have to look far to see how, taken as one kind of truth, the stories of God can be a licence to kill, to conquer, to dehumanise and to subjugate others. We urgently need a theological literacy to do for our understanding of religious stories what the campaign for media literacy tries to do for our understanding of secular stories.

This theological literacy involves developing an understanding of mythology as a way of telling the truth, rather than equating myth with falsehood as we do when we say "that's a complete myth". It involves an understanding of stories as wholly human constructs, tales told by human story-tellers and human communities, always culture-bound and culture-specific. And it involves a recognition that stories have a life of their own: they grow, they change, they mature, and they die. They are ours to do what we like with: to re-make, re-write, re-interpret. Indeed, it is our responsibility to make what sense we will of the stories, to fit them to our own experience, to use them with intelligence and imagination.

I want to raise two questions arising from this concern for a better understanding of our religious stories - what I have called theological literacy. The first is a question of particular concern to religious humanists and those who hold that religious faith in all its forms is a wholly human creation. The second is a question which faces every faith community, traditionalist or liberal, realist or nonrealist.

First, for religious humanists and the Sea of Faith: If we have come to see our religious stories as fictions, and God himself as no more - but no less - than a story, why should we continue to take them seriously? How can our lives be transformed by fictions, by what we know isn't really true?

Robin le Poidevin, in a book called Arguing for Atheism (Routledge, 1996), has an illuminating passage on fiction and the emotions, which I quote quite extensively in a chapter called "Make Believe" in my own book The Trouble with God. Le Poidevin asks why it is that we become emotionally involved in what we know to be "not true"? Why do we find ourselves having to dash the tears from our eyes at the end of Brief Encounter when the woman who has just said her last goodbye to the man she has fallen in love with is left desolate in the waiting-room? Why are we reluctant to take a shower after watching Psycho? We know these are stories. We know the woman in the waiting-room and the man who has knifed the woman in the shower are not real, never were real, are "made up" by story-tellers. But the emotional impact on us is huge. Why?

Is it that, for one fleeting moment, reality is suspended and we forget that we are hearing, reading or watching pure fiction? Do we weep or gasp because for a second or two we really believe we are being presented with the truth? Surely not, for we don't act as we would do if we believed, even for a moment, that we were in a similar real-life situation, where our response to seeing the shower attack would be to scream the place down, lock the door and call the police. We know it's all fiction, and we haven't been fooled into supposing these things are really happening, even for a moment. But we still feel the emotion, and the emotion persists long after we have left the cinema or put the book back on its shelf.

So Le Poidevin explores an alternative suggestion. Is it that fiction generates emotions by bringing to our attention broad truths, albeit by fictional means? Do we weep at the death of Little Nell, not because we temporarily think of Little Nell as a real person, but because we are vividly reminded of the appalling conditions in which the poor lived in Dickensian England, conditions which we know all too well persist in other parts of the world in our own time? To some extent this may be so, but it surely isn't the whole answer. It doesn't do justice to our actual experience of fiction, where the immediate object of our emotion surely is the fictional character as an imaginary person, not as a representative of social evils or big themes. Our tears are not for lovers in general or broken hearts in the abstract.

Having knocked back these two explanations as unsatisfactory, Le Poidevin introduces a third, proposed by Kendall Walton, a philosopher who has written extensively on the nature of our relation to fiction. Walton, says Le Poidevin, "proposes that, when we become involved in a fictional story, we are engaging in a game of make-believe. Just as a child make-believes that a group of chairs set in a line is a bus, or that, in chasing after a friend, he is chasing after a desperate criminal, armed to the teeth with a pop-gun and a water-pistol, so we, in reading a novel, make-believe that it is reporting the truth. In doing so we, as it were, locate ourselves in the novel. We are there, witnessing the events. We may even assign ourselves a role, and imagine talking to the characters. It is our active participation in the fiction, suggests Walton, which explains why we become emotionally involved".

Walton' solution, then, of the paradox that we can be emotionally involved in something we know to be objectively untrue - a fiction or myth - is that we play a game of make-believe in which the fiction becomes reality. Armed with this account, Le Poidevin suggests that a defence of nonrealist participation in worship, prayer and religious ritual may be found in comparing the effects of one kind of fiction, religion, to the beneficial effects of other kinds of fiction: the novel, the film and the television soap opera:

"To engage in religious practice, on this account", he writes, "is to engage in a game of make-believe. We make-believe that there is a God, by reciting, in the context of the game, a statement of belief. We listen to what make-believedly are accounts of the activities of God and his people, and we pretend [a word I want to query later] to worship and address prayers to that God. In Walton's terms, we locate ourselves in that fictional world, and in so doing we allow ourselves to become emotionally involved, to the extent that a religious service is capable of being an intense experience. The immediate object of our emotions is the fictional God, but there is a wider object, and that is the collection of real individuals in our lives... What remains, when the game of make-believe is over, is an awareness of our responsibilities for ourselves and others."

So, we as radical theologians or radical religious humanists can coherently explain why it can be useful to talk in theistic terms - that is, use traditional God-language - and, if we wish, participate in theistic religious practice - that is, go to church - even when we know that theism is not objectively true. We can do this by reference to our emotional response to other forms of fiction. Although we understand that fiction, by definition, is not a true description of reality, we can nevertheless become emotionally involved with it in ways closely analogous to our response to the reality of our own direct experience. And through this emotional and imaginative involvement, our lives in the real world, and our relationships with others, can be transformed. Theology, then, like any other form of poetry, involves "the willing suspension of disbelief".

This seems to me a telling insight into what may be happening when I, for instance, attend and thereby participate in a Quaker meeting for worship, or an Anglican or Catholic wedding or funeral service, or when I sing "Credo in unum deum" (which I don't really believe) in a Dent village choir performance of a classical choral mass, or when I belt out such preposterous words as "Lo he abhors not the virgin's womb" in community carol-singing. I am consciously engaging in an act of make-belief - not by pretending to worship God, but by acting out a role as I make believe - much as an actor acts out Hamlet (rather than pretending to be Hamlet), or as I myself act out my own involvement in Hamlet's drama from my back seat up in the gods. Remember Show Boat, where the lovers sing:

"Only make believe I love you,
Only make believe that you love me.
Others find peace of mind in pretending.
Couldn't you? Couldn't I? Couldn't we?"

By making believe they love each other, of course, they make it happen that they love each other. Making believe is not the same as making things up. In The Amber Spyglass, Philip Pullman has Lyra asking the angel Xaphania whether humans can learn to travel between different worlds, like angels. "Yes", says Xaphania, "it uses the faculty of what you call imagination." So, "Just pretend?" asks Lyra. "No", says Xaphania, "nothing like pretend. Pretending is easy." Imagination, says the angel, doesn't mean "making things up. It is a form of seeing. This way is hard, but much truer... It takes long practice". William Blake - one of Philip Pullman's heroes, and one of mine - would have found a very imaginative way of saying Amen to that!

I said I wanted to raise a second question, one of significance to everyone who takes religion seriously, whether realist or nonrealist. It brings us back to theological literacy and the supreme importance of addressing our sacred, foundational stories with critical intelligence and discernment. I'm talking about how we treat the stories, what status we give them, and how we make judgments about the lessons to be learnt from them.

This too, like making believe, has to be worked at. There are two easy responses which we can make without unduly overworking the brain cells. One is the traditional one. God is the story-teller, and by these stories he shows us how he has intervened in history, and how he wants us to behave. These are sacred stories because, unlike the stories of Homer and Shakespeare and Philip Pullman, they have a supernatural and superhuman origin. They are God's word, even if God has perforce used human amanuenses. They therefore have unique authority. They dictate how we must live. Ours not to question why, ours but to trust and obey.

The other easy answer, at the opposite pole, is to treat the stories in the Bible and other scriptures as fairy stories, aesthetically pleasing, often highly entertaining, but quite irrelevant to the way we live now. On this reading, the magical God of the Bible is pretty well on a par with the magical Tinkerbell in Peter Pan, and David's adventures with Bathsheba and Goliath are just another ripping tale of sex and violence, secrets and power.

The first approach has turned religion into a killer disease, blighting the lives of millions of women and men. It robs us of our humanity by robbing us of our reason, our imagination and our responsibility. But the second fails to take account of the way these foundational stories have embedded themselves so deeply, so ineradicably, in our culture and our consciousness (or conscience), that we cannot cut them out of our lives, even if would wish to. The creation, the fall, epic tales of enslavement and liberation, and not least the story of the god-man who so loved us that he died for us - these are the stories which have shaped Christian and post-Christian culture, penetrating our language, subtly influencing the way we think, talk, write and behave, whether or not we count ourselves as believers. They are written on our bodies and wired into our brain cells. And they penetrate so deeply precisely because they address our most fundamental psychological needs: for scapegoats, for grace, for forgiveness, for finding meaning and purpose in life, and for taking the sting out of death.

So we cannot sensibly grant the stories supernatural status, nor can we dismiss them as irrelevant fairy tales. We must treat them critically, sifting out what rings true over the centuries, taking to heart what speaks to our condition, and setting aside the rest. Two obvious instances:

The Genesis story of the Fall has perpetuated and validated the wicked notion that women are inferior to men. This particular example of early patriarchal spin has ensured that political, economic and personal power has been appropriated by one half of the human race at the expense of the other. The damage has been incalculable - to men, I believe, as well as to generations of women. It has blighted Christianity, Judaism and Islam, and it continues to wreak havoc around the world. I don't suggest that we bowdlerise Genesis and cut out the spare rib story and Eve's temptation of Adam. But we should have no hesitation in interpreting it as illustrating an injustice, not justice; a wrong, not a right. We have to make it, not a justification for perpetual discrimination, but an incitement to liberation. Liberation in Islam, liberation in orthodox Judaism, liberation in the Christian churches which still won't ordain women as priests or bishops, and liberation in a secular society which sneers at women's' lib as "political correctness" or treats it as a joke.

And then, of course, the story of Israel and the "promised land"! Here, at least, is a story of liberation: an enslaved people, way down in Egypt-land, urging old Pharaoh, "Let my people go!" And go they do, in the epic adventure of the Exodus, their evil oppressors gloriously drowned in the Red Sea by act of God, while a free people take possession of a land flowing with milk and honey. The story has inspired oppressed and enslaved people throughout the ages: But of course there's another side to the story. There are people already living in the promised land. They are in the way. God tells the Israelites what to do:

"And when the Lord thy God shall deliver them before thee; thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them [or as modern translations say, 'exterminate them']; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them...: ye shall destroy their altars, and break down their images, and cut down their groves, and burn their graven images with fire...: And thou shalt consume all the people which the Lord thy God shall deliver thee: thine eye shall have no pity upon them..."

Millions today still read this story as divine authorisation for the illegal occupation of the West Bank - and I don't just mean Jewish Zionists. Christian fundamentalists around the world quote the story in justification for their support of a policy which shows no mercy to those whose lands and homes are occupied, whose altars are destroyed, whose groves are cut down, whose families are dispersed. Twelve million evangelicals in America cite this liberation story as justification for Israel's state terrorism. And President Bush, the one man with the power to turn things around, knows that they all have a vote. And some of them live in Florida. That's the power of a story taken as gospel: the power to poison international relations for generations.

So we can't just take our myths as we find them. We have to interrogate them, scrutinise them, interpret and reinterpret them, measuring them against our human values as much as measuring our values against them.

Let me try to summarise what I've been saying in a single paragraph. In our everyday secular lives we are bombarded by stories which come at us through books, newspapers, magazines, television, radio, the internet. These stories are not value-neutral. They prod us towards conformity, compliance, consumerism, commercialism, complacency. If we are not to be overwhelmed by them, and manipulated by the media story-tellers, we must learn how to confront them critically. We must become media-literate. If our lives have a religious dimension, and particularly if we understand religion in terms of stories, we need to develop a critical understanding of the status of our religious myths - the big, shaping stories of beginnings and ends, of aspirations and apostasy, of fall and redemption. We need to understand them as human stories, culture-specific, and open to continual challenge and renewal. We must become theologically literate.

Isn't that a worthwhile crusade for Sea of Faith - the demand for theological literacy? Which brings me to my last point. What about Sea of Faith's own story? What is our story? What are we saying? What are we for?

Our own story

It doesn't unduly worry me that, after 15 years of exploring and promoting religious faith as a human creation, different members of the Network will give different answers to these questions. That's diversity. What concerns me much more is our deeply-ingrained resistance to the idea that we should even aspire to a clear, coherent story of our own. We claim to "explore", but are we clear about what territory it is that we want to explore, and how we might go about it? We claim to "promote", but not only are we unclear about what it is we want to promote, we seem content to remain unclear, unfocused, uncertain. We have actually become rather good at making a virtue of it! Are we so terrified of arriving at destinations that we daren't start on the journey? Are we so hung up on seeing ourselves as a Network of individuals that we see no virtue in trying to work out what we can say together?

Here he goes again, you say! We thought we'd done with all that when he gave up the magazine! Well, let me say it just one last time. And let me say it as a plea from the heart, from one who loves this Network dearly and has learnt so much from its members in the last ten years.

This Network has a potentially visionary, liberating view of religious faith. It has taken leave of God, for God's sake, and said goodbye to notions of supernatural authority and intervention, goodbye to pie in the sky when you die, goodbye to gods and devils, ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties and things that go bump in the night. It has set out to replace a kingdom of God in which we are subjects with a republic of heaven in which we are free citizens. This is its story, this is its song! I only wish we could tell it, sing it, with more confidence. Ours is a liberation theology. It sets the captive free.

It is also a challenging theology - challenging and subverting the irrationality, the dogmatism, the authoritarianism of traditional church order. It's a radical theology too: after all, you really are getting to the root of things when you acknowledge God not as supernatural maker and master of humanity but as the imagined projection of human values personified as the greatest work of fiction in western culture.

Liberating, challenging, radical, subversive... but it doesn't quite feel like that, does it? Somehow, after 15 years, we still haven't escaped the stuffy churchiness of where we came from. We haven't done very well at forging a new theological language, telling new stories, attracting anyone outside our own familiar white middle-aged club. We are losing members, not gaining them, losing readers, not attracting new ones. We display a catatonic conservatism when it comes to taking positions on anything - except the position that we shouldn't take positions. Not only do we not take positions, we don't even discuss the issues on which positions are being taken by everyone else. Disestablishing and ending the privileged place of the Church of England? No position. Women bishops? No comment? More public money for faith schools? Er... well... Speaking out against Israel's illegal occupation of the West Bank, against plans to invade Iraq, against the bombing of Afghanistan, against the arms trade, against the rich, for the poor? Best leave such contentious stuff to radicals like the incoming Archbishop of Canterbury...

Honestly, we can do a lot better! I'm not asking that we become just one more political or religious lobby, that we spend our time passing resolutions and issuing press statements - no! But we might, for instance, commission members with particular expertise to write position papers for us, which we can study and discuss. We might go outside our own ranks to team up with others who might join us in a campaign for theological literacy. We might start thinking together about how radical theology links - has to link if it is going to be of any earthly use - with radical social action (and I hope the steering committee will pursue the suggestion that next year's conference focuses on "Radical Theology as Social Critique"). Let's fact it, theologically conservative churches are often more radical than we are when it comes to plain speaking and mobilisation against the suffering, misery and rank injustice which disfigures our world. I fear that where it really matters, we are being left behind.

The world is full of stories! Ours is a great story! We just need the confidence, first to explore openly among ourselves the radical implications of understanding religious faith as a wholly human creation, then to risk drawing some conclusions, then to go out and preach the possibility of building the republic of heaven on earth. Don't let's spend another 15 years sitting on the ground telling sad stories of the death of gods. Let's get moving!