Free will vs determinism isn’t just a debate for Christians....
The BBC Radio 2 presenter talks to Justin Brierley about faith, doubt and Strictly Come Dancing
Meeting Jeremy Vine in the very studio where he presents his Radio 2 programme is one of those ‘bucket list’ moments for a fellow radio presenter like me. Yet, while I’m a relative minnow compared to his status as a nationally renowned broadcaster, neither he nor the environment are overwhelming.
The studio has a homely feel with tinsel wrapped around the microphone stands for Christmas and Vine can’t do enough to make me and the photographer feel at ease, posing for photos even while the show is still on-air with music playing out.
He’s just finished a programme segment called ‘What makes us human?’. As someone who has taken more than 25,000 calls from his listeners (more than 7 million tune in on a weekly basis) the stories and quirks that make us human are also a source of endless fascination for the radio host.
Vine’s BBC TV career began as a political reporter in Britain, later becoming their Africa correspondent in the 1990s. He went on to become a familiar face on Newsnight, Panorama, Crimewatch and the BBC’s election coverage. Latterly his onscreen appearances have branched out to entertainment as well, hosting the quiz show Eggheads for many years, and lasting until week eight on Strictly Come Dancing in 2015 (one of his personal career highlights).
The transition from hardnosed Jeremy Paxman-like political interrogator to national broadcasting treasure owes much to The Jeremy Vine Show he has hosted every weekday since 2003. Vine says that radio is about “a conversation”. It allowed him the space to connect at a personal level and was a key factor in his transformation into the cheerful, down-to earth personality he is known as today.
“If I go on air and say: 'I think Jesus Christ is alive today', it’ll just wind up all the atheists”
Many of Vine’s fans might be unaware they’re listening to a Christian. The presenter says that he keeps his faith ‘off-air’ and rarely grants interviews about it. In his new book What I Learnt: What my listeners say – and why we should take notice (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) the mention of his Christianity only occupies a page or two near the end.
But Vine is certainly happy to talk about it to me, and admits that, despite growing up in a strongly Christian background, his adult relationship with faith was an on-off affair for a long time. Today he’s settled in a place where, while things are not as black and white as they were in the charismatic evangelical church he grew up in, he nevertheless believes that “Jesus really was who he said he was”.
Jeremy Vine is perhaps the only interviewee whose sibling has also been featured as a Profile interview in this magazine – the comedian Tim Vine is also a committed Christian. The broadcaster is full of praise for the successful career his younger brother has carved out, as well as his musical abilities. When Jeremy tries to repeat one of Tim’s gags (“someone left a piece of plasticine in my dressing room. I didn’t know what to make of it”), he fluffs it and admits he should leave the jokes to his brother. In fact, Jeremy is very funny in his own right. His book is full of laugh-out-loud anecdotes and the presenter exudes the same energy and bounciness outside the studio that he exhibits on-air.
As for the Christian imperative to share the gospel, Vine say it’s often “better to be kind than to be right” and that in his experience being honest about our doubts is more authentic to others than cast-iron certainty. He may be used to ‘talking the talk’ for a living, but ‘walking the walk’ is what matters when it comes to broadcasting his faith.
You grew up in a Christian family, didn’t you?
My parents have a very vivid faith, it’s real. The key thing I associate with their faith is kindness. The church they go to was what you’d call ‘low church’. There were tambourines, hands in the air. There were a lot of very kind people in that community.
The problem I had as a child was that every sermon ended up with the threat of hell, and if you don’t repent, you’re going there. I reckon by the time I was 15 I’d heard that two-anda-half thousand times, and began to have difficulties trying to work out where I was on that spectrum because I’d never had a big ‘conversion moment’.
Did you manage to get through your teens as a Christian, or was it something you left behind?
I’m afraid, if I was a Christian, it was because I was scared of hell. I’m now in my 50s and starting to think I need to hear a bit more about hell! No one has mentioned hell on [Radio 4’s] Thought For The Day for years! But as a teenager it scared the living daylights out of me.
The problem is, love and fear are not really compatible, you know? There were verses in the Bible I really struggled with. “You must love the Lord with all your heart and mind and soul and strength” and there’s nobody in the world who does that. So these seemed like a series of impossible thresholds, and I gave up really.
You say in the book that your brother Tim never felt the need “to grow up”. What sent you in such different directions?
I was more serious. As a journalist, I suppose I was trying to make people cry, and he was trying to make people laugh. So I’m serious, and he’s silly. In the end, our lives have converged a lot. My Radio 2 show is entertainment primarily, so I think we’re in the same thing really. The thing about Tim, leaving aside his comedy, he’s also the most stunningly talented musician in terms of song writing.
Didn’t you form a band?
Oh yeah, we had a punk band called The Flare Generation. The idea was that Cheam [where we grew up] had a punk band, but it was such an unfashionable place, with such an unfashionable punk band, they were wearing flared trousers…
And you actually had a measure of success?
Oh yeah, we were on TV and in Smash Hits magazine. The madness of it. In a way, of course, Tim became a rock star himself, because comedy is the new rock and roll. But we tried our very best to make it as pop stars.
I do think that going to church inspired all of us (my sister Sonya is also an actress). You go there every Sunday, and the whole room falls silent; some bloke will get on stage and say something. The message it gave us was that if you find a stage, you should immediately walk onto it and start speaking. I genuinely think that it created a performance gene.
In What I Learnt you write fondly about the treehouse your dad built for you. What was it about the treehouse that became symbolic of your father’s love?
I was looking at photos, particularly with my father in mind. He’s a lovely, lovely man. I was just remembering all the time my dad spent building this thing, and how he brought his boys and Sonya into the building process. We’d draw it, I’d be given some nails to hammer in, and Tim would be given some others, and it was all quite laborious. And in the end we had this treehouse.
The treehouse symbolises my father’s love; because love is a function of time, and the treehouse took time.
And the principle is there with your kids?
Of course it is! It’s time. With my oldest we’ve got Chelsea season tickets, and we go to all the home games. She now sits beside me saying: “When are they going to bring on…? What’s happened to the midfielder?” It’s a great thing.
When it comes to broadcasting, if you had to choose between TV and radio, which would it be?
It would be radio, for the practical reason that it gives you longevity. The thing about TV is it’s all about novelty; radio is all about consistency and constancy. Television is an announcement, and radio is a conversation.
Your book is really about the listeners of your radio show and what you’ve learned from hearing their stories. Do you consciously keep all the funny anecdotes for posterity?
Yeah I do, we clip stuff on the spot, and I also keep comments. We had one the other day; this old guy rang in and said that he’s attached a rape alarm to the flowers on his wife’s grave to stop yobs stealing them. I thought “gosh, that’s a totally British story”. And we had a guy ring in who’s in his 90s, who said that the only way to deal with the Brexit negotiations is to send in the SAS. So I always note these things down. The joy of it – it’s so spontaneous, so real.
And it’s frequently the mundane things that connect.
Cycling is massive…I cycle, but I have to constantly justify my presence in the first two-and-a-half feet of the road. So I never mention I’m a cyclist. Also, angling, for some reason. We once had a story where an angler said he was at a riverbank, and a cyclist cycled behind him and broke all his rods. I thought, “We’ve got the Third World War, we’ve got both stories coming together”.
But the biggest thing of all is what I call “IGW” – Inter Generational Warfare. Old people say young people don’t work hard enough. Young people say old people have stolen everything – houses, pensions, the NHS. I’m not taking a side here, but it really is insoluble – 25-year-olds can’t buy a house, and 75-year-olds say it’s because they’re not working hard enough.
You walked away from your Christian faith, but say you came back to it in your 40s. What was it that means you can answer today, “Yes, I’m a Christian”?
I think you’ve got to have a combination of objective and subjective truth. You’ve got to be at least half way convinced that some of what the Bible says is true. The New Testament is quite fundamental – it’s a bit difficult to do any of it without believing that there was a resurrection, for example.
And then (and this is the least provable thing I’ll ever say as a journalist) there’s got to be some sort of sense that you’re loved by God, or that your life has meaning, or Christ is real. But I don’t think that’s something that’s very possible to communicate. In the end I think it’s some sort of combination.
And you see faith and doubt as very much intertwined?
I do like a lot of faith, and I quite like a bit of doubt…sounds like a recipe. People think “I’m not there because I can’t quite believe”. No, you’re there! The fact that you’re even having that thought. I’d be the worst evangelical ever because I’d constantly be saying, “I don’t know if it’s true either. Gosh, that’s both of us then!” I would be completely unable to do that thing of “It is definitely true and here’s why”.
I think that it’s better to be kind than to be right a lot of times in life. There’s a bit too much preoccupation with being right.
You once interviewed the Archbishop of Canterbury about his faith on stage at a large event.
I hugely admire Justin Welby. He was so frank about his life, his doubts and complexities. He lost his daughter in a car accident, and I think that stayed with him. He was totally threedimensional, and I thought, “This is the kind of Christian I want to be.”
I thought, “This is one of the most powerful spiritual occasions I’ve been to.” We took his faith and looked at it from all angles in front of 3,000 people. They then asked questions. And when it was a difficult question, he sounded uncertain. When it’s a difficult question and you sound completely certain it’s really terrifying.
You said in 2009 that it’s almost socially unacceptable to speak about Christianity in public. Do you still feel that way? Especially in your line of work?
I don’t really give many interviews like this. You can’t go on the air and say: “I think there should be cycle routes in half of London” (even though I do), because it would just wind up motorists. In the same way if I go on and say: “I think Jesus Christ is alive today”, it’ll just wind up all the atheists. So I have to slightly take my cards off the table.
But I actually think this new digital world is made for modern Christians. So even when you turn on your BBC iPlayer, it will be recommending programmes it knows you will like. And in the end, wasn’t Jesus Christ digital? In the sense that he shaped his offer around the individual. Zacchaeus was told to come down from the tree, and Jesus said: “I’m dining at your house tonight.” Isn’t that the ultimate in the personal offer?
We can’t finish without mentioning your star turn on Strictly Come Dancing…
I had this thought that maybe Strictly is like life – you’re in it and it’s incredible. You learn about yourself and you learn about everything around you. But people are also being eliminated, they’re suddenly just disappearing, and you never think it’ll happen to you. Week six, week seven, week eight…and then suddenly, bang, you’re gone. And that’s what life is like.
I suddenly realised that here we are, all trucking along, but it’s just like Strictly – at some point, I’m afraid, the judges will take us out.
I guess you’ve got to make the most of the moments you do have? That’s probably it. Keep dancing.
Hear the interview in full on Premier Christian Radio on Saturday 6 January at 4pm. Or download the podcast premierchristianradio.com/theprofile
What I Learnt: What my listeners say – and why we should take notice (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) is available now