Brains and beauty is a beguiling mix and the BBC has got a couple of documentaries on at the moment where they've gone for that mix in a big way. The one who is getting the most publicity is Professor Brian Cox - rock musician turned particle physicist. A member of the band which gave us the New Labour anthem, "Things can only get better," he is now television's premier popular science pin up most recently seen by six million people standing alone on remote mountain tops expounding the wonders of the universe. And as you watch him seeking to explain cosmic mysteries with earthbound analogies you begin to realise how very unclear many of the scientific truths we now take for granted really are. Over a period of time we have learned to look at the world in a way that would have made no sense at all a few hundred years ago. The moon goes round the earth? Everyone knows that. But stand and look up at it sometime and ask yourself how obvious it really is?
The other documentary I'm thinking of is in some ways contrasting but in other ways remarkably similar. Professor Francesca Stavrakopoulou is based at Exeter university while Brian Cox works at Manchester and she is a biblical scholar while he's a scientist. She has been chosen to front BBC2's current offering on religion called The Bible's Buried Secrets. She is almost as beautiful as Brian Cox and also gets to stand looking thoughtful in a bewildering variety of exotic locations. If you've not spotted this one you might get clue about its drift from the fact that while Brian has been featured in the Guardian lately it's been the Daily Mail and the Telegraph that have been getting steamed up about Francesca. She's certainly rattled a few cages amongst traditional Christians as evidenced by some pretty angry blogging and mud slinging. What she's doing, you see, is approaching the bible stories as a historian and looking elsewhere for corroborating evidence and pitching herself against those who approach the bible as history. She certainly has a point of view and it is again quite thought provoking on the way we see things. David was a great king? Everyone knows that. But where's the evidence outside the bible? Francesca can't find much. You can see how she upsets people while remaining very watchable.
I've said before, I think, that there is something about bible stories that somehow gets set in aspic - their meaning, their significance and their outcomes get defined by tradition and years of familiarity, making it very difficult to come to them with any real sense of freshness. Let's take today's Moses story as an example - a historian would undoubtedly find it very hard to find much corroborating evidence that this incident actually happened and would point out that it was almost certainly written with an agenda to demonstrate God's protection of his chosen people. And if we're not careful we can accept that agenda unthinkingly and think warmly about how it shows that God always delivers and the story always finishes happily without really getting the impact. Whereas let's accept for a moment the scenario of a band of folk dying of thirst in the wilderness and seriously challenging the leader who had brought them to this pass, to the extent that leader is clearly scared stiff for his own life. Think of it as a film. There's no guarantee of a happy ending and the tension is palpable - the scope is there for a seriously bleak ending as tension turns first to violence then to despair before we cut to bones and poignant shots of belongings found scattered in the sand by nomads passing through many months later. No doubt there have been plenty of such tragedies in history and it is salutary to consider both endings if only to reflect that both leading and following are fraught with uncertainty and that it's easy to feel justified by success when it might just have been luck. But that doesn't mean we can't build on the success.
For me, the stand out verse in the gospel reading is 4:35 - open your eyes and look at the fields. Partly because, quoted selectively like that it's nice & easy for us to follow - when we get out of here we can walk down the path and just look around us and think how beautiful everything is. But also because almost every speaker who has ever tried to argue a controversial point will at some stage have implored people to open their eyes. For a while the phrase may have been replaced by "wake up and smell the coffee" though that's become a bit of a cliche and best forgotten I think. Either way it's conveying some urgency. In the context of the reading we heard, a straightforward interpretation is that generally speaking, when you sow or plant something you have to wait a while until you can pick the fruit. But look here, Jesus points out - we've got all these folk of Samaria to whom you wouldn't normally give the time of day, really interested in hearing about the things of God - who would have believed it?
So in one way there's a fairly obvious comment here about not being too slow or coy about speaking of our faith and what it means to us - such conversations may be more welcome than we sometimes imagine. But before we do, let's pause a moment - open our eyes and look at the fields - the fields we see are very different from those of 2000 years ago and rather more than 2000 miles away. I did try to google a route from Colwall to Jerusalem but it couldn't do it, which I thought faintly symbolic. But as I say, different times, different world, how do we see it - who should be our guide? Who do we trust to open our eyes? During this Lent season it's a good question as we think about our world and place in it. I hesitate to quote from another reggae song and I promise that this time I won't try to sing it but Bob Marley's Exodus has a verse which muddles what we've been talking about rather nicely I think
So there's that same injunction to open our eyes and a nice indication that opening our eyes should turn us from Babylon to our Father - or to put it more prosaically, from worldly considerations to godly ones. But as to who may be our guide, we should perhaps keep an open mind. It doesn't always have to be brainy beautiful people or charismatic leaders who can lead us from Babylon to our Father's land - do you remember the film Rain Man, now over 20 years old and what happens in it is that the discovery of his previously unknown autistic brother Raymond gradually turns shallow, wealth obsessed Charlie Babbitt from selfish yuppie into caring loving brother. Well OK, it's a Hollywood feel-good movie but it has a point. God can use the least regarded to teach us great truths if only we'll allow the possibility.