Too often, television deals with religion by offering merely an impressionistic montage of church services and sound bites of citizens practicing their faith. But a new four-part series on PBS, "Searching for God in America," reaches for more depth by engaging eight people of faith in lengthy conversations about their spiritual quests.
One of five religious series PBS is airing this year, "Searching for God in America" offers half-hour interviews by host Hugh Hewitt with an unusually diverse group of religious thinkers. The subjects represent a fascinating gamut of personal beliefs and religious traditions from various Protestant faiths through Roman Catholicism, Judaism, and Islam, to the Buddhism of the Dalai Lama.
The segments are coupled in one-hour programs that air consecutive Fridays beginning July 5.
Questions to ask the guests were devised by Mr. Hewitt - a law professor at Chapman University Law School and author of "First Principles" (Regnery Publishing) - and series producer Martin Burns. "We developed a list of a half-dozen critical inquiries that, for consistency and comprehensiveness, we had to pose to each guest," Hewitt says in a Monitor interview.
"The problem of evil, of suffering. What happens to us when we die. Proofs of the existence of God. Those are the questions that have dominated college dorms as long as there have been college dorms. One of my friends described this series as continuing the conversation we all began as sophomores."
Yes, the series is largely a progression of talking heads - although broken up by stills and film clips to provide context - but in this case an often static format becomes electric at times, as voice tone and body language convey the obvious depth of feelings and the profound meaning faith has in the subjects' lives.
This happens in the first interview, for example, when Charles Colson, one-time "hatchet man" of the Nixon administration, speaks movingly of his own moment of realization of what he lacked in his life and, later, of what he saw happening to fellow inmates while he was serving time for obstruction of justice. It occurs again in the initial program when Rabbi Harold Kushner offers a strikingly calm and reasonably worded reflection on his excruciating crisis of faith over the death of his child.
Stirring moments occur throughout the series as the various leaders express their zest for spiritual adventure, struggles for understanding, and hard-won tranquillity.
An outlet for discussion
William F. Buckley Jr. is said to have remarked that at dinner parties, virtually any subject is fair game - the juicier the better sometimes - except God. This series would be worth airing even if it simply encouraged listeners to discuss their deepest convictions more freely.
Mr. Colson, for instance, speaks unguardedly about the religious convictions he has held ever since he underwent his spiritual conversion. He described this event in "Born Again" (Revell), a book greeted with derision by some who saw his newfound faith as a convenient dodge - a disgraced official finding religion in the hope of redeeming his image. But other readers found the book honest, and since then Colson has lived a life that makes it hard to doubt his sincerity.
One of the contributions of this TV series is to let viewers judge intelligently for themselves as Colson and the other guests discuss their personal spiritual journeys.
To find the programs rewarding, you don't need to share the guests' conclusions - for one thing, they differ, sometimes radically. And some of the personal tragedies described are agonizing. But the series does demand a willingness to grapple with a wide spectrum of ideas.
There aren't many places on TV these days where people such as Colson can be talking about Watergate one minute and the next be saying, "Hegel was wrong when he said all we have to do is educate ourselves out of sin."
In conducting the interviews, Hewitt is blunt at times and constantly keeps in mind the interests of the average viewer. He strikes a skillful balance between expressing a good-natured, man-on-the-street skepticism concerning overreaching statements by his guests and engaging them in meaty theological issues.
"People tend to love what I call the truck-driver questions," he says. "The public loves the questions that are on everyone's lips but which, because of convention and courtesy, we do not often ask of clergy or religious leaders - the tough question: 'Prove it to me.' "
Hewitt notes that he had to shift gears radically in dealing with the religious leaders. "I had to get out of the [cross-examination] mode," he laughs. "Lawyers love to interrogate as opposed to converse.
"Bill Moyers and George Wills and others have taught me that the best interviews are those where the interviewer is listening to hear when there is an invitation to go deep."
That invitation occurred many times during the series, Hewitt says.
But first came the homework. "It took a lot of time reading serious works of theology and contemplative essays," he recalls.
"It's a rigorous process. But once you put yourself in the right frame of mind by reading their books and come at the interviews with an honest interest as opposed to any kind of an agenda, they seize the interviews. It's like falling off a log, talking to them - or like playing golf. Each hole, I knew I had to take out the driver, and in the course of each hole, I had to putt. But in between, they drive it," Hewitt explains.
At times, Hewitt's questions bring up issues that are difficult to answer. For instance, why is a conversion process necessary at all, he asks born-again Colson. Why doesn't God simply make people believers to begin with - thus raising the ancient issue of free moral choice. Colson says he doesn't know. Rabbi Kushner also acknowledges that certain central questions are beyond him, as do many of the others.
But this doesn't stop them from exploring an impressive range of the most basic religious issues. And the process makes for TV fare of a thoughtfulness and honesty rarely encountered these days.
Featured in the Series
One of the challenges in producing the TV series was to narrow the list of hundreds of potential interviewees from America's rich religious experience down to eight. Rather than an attempt to reflect all religions, the aim was a cross section of individuals that offered breadth, depth, tested commitment, and proven leadership. The guests, in order of appearance:
*Charles Colson went from being special counsel to President Nixon to serving one to three years for obstruction of justice in a federal penitentiary. He is now a voice for evangelical Christianity and founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries.
*Rabbi Harold Kushner has been called "America's rabbi" for his writings and other commentary. His first book, "When Bad Things Happen to Good People" (Avon), describes his agonized spiritual struggle over the death of his infant son.
*The Rev. Cecil Murray, senior pastor of the Los Angeles First African Methodist Episcopal Church, became a prominent leader when the city was convulsed with riots in 1992. His congregation has risen from about 300 in the 1970s to more than 2,000 today.
*Father Thomas Keating, member of a Trappist monastery, has been at the forefront of the Contemplative Prayer movement, part of the renewed emphasis on the power of prayer.
*The Rev. Roberta Hestenes is president of the Baptist-affiliated Eastern College and the first woman president of the Christian College Coalition. She is also the first woman to chair World Vision, the largest Christian relief organization in the world.
*Dr. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a renowned Islamic scholar, is university professor of Islamic Studies at George Washington University in Washington. His career has helped the Western world increase its understanding of Islam.
*Elder Neal A. Maxwell is a member of Quorum of Twelve Apostles, highest governing body of the Church of Latter Day Saints, and the author of 17 books.
*His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 for his dedication to this cause and his work on behalf of human rights. The Dalai Lama's sect is one of the largest in Buddhism.
*'Searching for God in America' premires on PBS Friday, July 5, 9-10 p.m. The series continues July 12, 19, and 26. Check local listings.