TV UK, 13 February

ITV flogs a dead ghost in Second Coming.

Dolan Cummings

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On one level, Second Coming (ITV last weekend) was a conventional drama about a couple who spend years as friends and never take it any further because each is waiting for someone better to come along. It is a rather brilliant piece of irony, then, that one of them was actually the Second Coming of God.

It is fitting, I suppose, that he should have been a Manchester City fan, since Jesus Christ was noted for his love for the poor and downtrodden, and his disdain for the rich and powerful. (Surely it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for Ruud van Nistelrooy to enter the kingdom of heaven.) But I’m not sure that he needed to be quite so gormless.

The new messiah Steven Baxter was played by Christopher Ecclestone, who looked suitably bewildered throughout. Eccleston has been accused of overacting in the past, but his style works well for odder parts (he was excellent as Jago in ITV’s Othello a couple of Christmases ago). At one point, Baxter protested that trying to embody God in a Mancunian video-shop assistant is like trying to download 50million megabytes of data into a pocket calculator. Forget Christ the Man, this was Christ the Numpty.

And that was kind of the point. Baxter’s job was not to redeem, but to resign. The premise was that mankind has outgrown God, and that in his wisdom, our creator decides to do away with himself and let us all get on with things. It fell to Judith – Baxter’s friend, disciple and Mary Magdelene-figure – to feed him poison, after explaining that it’s time we stopped turning to the clergy whenever we’re in trouble. What?

Marx’s dictum that religion is the opiate of the masses is truer than we thought. Just as the authorities imagine that getting rid of drugs will free the inner cities of their problems, childish anti-religionists think that disposing of God will herald a new dawn for humanity. It is a bizarrely old-fashioned idea to be pedalling over 100 years after Nietzsche announced the death of God. Perhaps that’s why ITV felt the need to bring him back before doing away with him. Talk about flogging a dead ghost.

The Jews, of course, have spent millennia waiting for someone better to come along. There’s no pleasing some people. John Meets Paul (BBC2, late on Sunday nights) looks at the birth of the Christian church among the less fussy Jews of the Greco-Roman world.

John Meets Paul is a great title. John Lennon famously said that the Beatles were bigger than Jesus, so it’s not surprising that the names John and Paul make you think of George and Ringo rather than the apostles. In fact, Paul is Saint Paul, but John is not John the Son of Thunder, but John McCarthy, the guy who was kidnapped with Terry Waite in the 1980s.

McCarthy travels around the Near East visiting the places Paul went to, and trying to imagine what he was like. Paul’s missionary zeal was not always appreciated, either at the time or since. (Nietzsche hated him.) Nonetheless, the programme shows that the enduring legacy of Christianity is rather more profound than that of the Beatles. Ever wondered just when Jesus announced that it was okay to eat pork? That was Paul, explaining that faith was important, and ancient customs were not.

It could be argued that the entire history of religion is the story of a glorious march from superstition towards atheism. Not everyone is there yet, but it is surely those who shout the loudest about their rejection of God who have the furthest to go.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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