Death and the Radio

Listener, July 6, 2002

“Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy; your young men shall see visions; your old men will dream dreams.”

This prophetic verse greeted me when I tuned into the Rhema Network. “Joel, Acts 1:17,” the announcer informs. It had me running for my Bible. What about those who didn’t make the dream team? “And on My menservants and on My maidservants I will pour out My Spirit in those days; and they shall prophesy.” 

We’re talking end times, when “the sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood . . .” 

Great poem, whatever the truth of the matter is, but on the whole I found the Rhema Network rather dull; its bland commercial format interspersed with soppy love songs to Jesus bored me to tears: and I mean no disrespect to the Man from Nazareth, whose teachings have saved many “a poor wretch like me”. 

I occasionally listened to the Rhema Network when it was Radio Rhema in the mid 1990s and particularly enjoyed the wit of Jim Stinton. He occupied the Straight Talk evening slot and broke the mould of Christian broadcasters. Stinton – an ex skin-head – added colour to fundamentalism; he had an edge and he reckoned jazz was God’s music. 

Stinton hasn’t been at Rhema for a few years and I was saddened to discover he is currently battling the Big C. Is there life after radio? 

On the eve of Bloomsday (celebrated on June 16 each year to immortalise a dead Irishman) Kim Hill gave a fair chunk of her Saturday morning show on National Radio over to an interview with Englishman Peter Stanford, author of Heaven: A Travellers Guide to the Undiscovered Country. The catalyst for Stanford writing the book was his mother’s death: he wanted to know if “she was anywhere” and 70 percent of those people he polled held out hope of an afterlife. 

“There’s the wish and the belief,” he says. “But what I thought was quite interesting was that in the past that sort of wish or hope would have been framed within some sort of religious context; would have been part of a denominational attachment, but if you looked at the approval rating for God I’m sure it wouldn’t reach 70 per cent . . . nowadays people pick and mix belief systems“. 

On Bloomsday (named after James Joyce’s Ulysses character Leopold Bloom), Hill’s colleague Chris Laidlaw broadened the death theme with an hour-long feature called Dancing with Mr D. The title was taken from a book of the same name by Dutch doctor and euthanasia practitioner Bert Kaiser. The programme opened with the signature tune for the brilliant tele series Six Feet Under and was made up of interviews with Kaiser and the legendary American writer and broadcaster 90-year-old Studs Terkel, who has just published a book called Will The Circle Be Unbroken? 

Terkel, an agnostic (“a cowardly atheist”), had interviewed a range of “non-celebrities” on death. He discovered death is no longer a taboo subject: “People are eager to talk about it, crazy to talk about it . . . it’s the liveliest book I’ve ever done . . . the life you live here on earth is what the book’s all about.” 

While Terkel was working on the project he was sent a quote from the epilogue to Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake (“I tried to read the whole book, but I can’t, it’s too complex for me”) which went: “You can only understand death if you recognise the permanence of life”. Terkel wished he had been more prepared for the interview and says he would have brought a poem by a Polish poet. “It’s about the very fact that if you’re born means you’ve beaten death.” 

Little comfort to this death-fearing babyboomer. Better just to say a prayer for Jim Stinton. 

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