An Ambitious New Show Just on Religion and Ethics

Good, even great things happen every day in individual lives, in religious communities, and in ecumenical and interfaith encounters. Most of those stories never make it into the evening news. Then, too, issues facing people of one faith may sometimes be difficult for those of another to understand.

A news magazine hosted by television journalist Bob Abernethy, "Religion & Ethics Newsweekly," intends to help change all that, taking a good, long look at religious issues as they affect our lives and communities today. A production of WNET in New York, the program premired Sept. 5 and airs Saturday or Sunday on PBS (check local listings).

Mr. Abernethy (see story, right) lets us know off the bat that this is a news show - there will be no preaching. He has the kind of genial, genteel intelligence that inspires confidence. His reasonable tone assures viewers that his handling of the subjects he investigates will be balanced, respectful, and generous.

He is not out to promote any one's religious agenda. The show will concentrate on the issues, exploring a wide variety of belief systems, and will not attempt to tell listeners what to think.

The first two programs' biggest strengths were the variety of issues Abernethy and team delved into, and their canny ability to show why religion matters so much to so many. In the first show, Mother Teresa's legacy was tastefully handled with affection.

The persecution of Christians around the world, though not as fully explained as one might wish, opened up a can of worms the public seldom sees - even showing the reluctance of some Christians to face what is happening head on. Solutions were suggested, experts consulted, and the changing tide of opinion discussed.

But the sentiment that remained is that speaking out against human rights violations (whether in China, the Sudan, or elsewhere) is the only thing that will help protect Christians who are being persecuted.

In another segment, Abernethy visited the new gospel music for the 1990s - hearing from those young people who respond to its message, as well as from adults who do and don't approve of its style.

Appreciation for Diana

One of the most touching sequences dealt with the public outpouring of grief over the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, focusing on what people loved about her and how various religious faiths would both answer questions about death and comfort grieving relatives of the princess. Participants felt that Diana's appeal arose from her great personal warmth and genuine concern, evidenced by her hands-on advocacy of various charities; it was her goodness, despite her human frailties, that inspired.

A Jewish rabbi, an Episcopal priest, and an Islamic scholar each then sensitively addressed the problem of death and grief.

The second show dealt with prayer and medicine - how many medical patients want their doctors to pray with them, and how prayer has been shown to be therapeutic, aiding in recovery.

A review of the new ABC television drama "Nothing Sacred" included some rather caustic remarks about stereotypical characters and controversial subject matter by Martha Bayles, who has been an arts and television critic for The Wall Street Journal. The show concerns a streetwise priest who caters to the homeless and advocates a liberal interpretation of doctrine. Ms. Bayles called for greater complexity in handling the subject matter and more rounded, believable characterizations of the conservative priests in the show.

Charity across faiths

Revisiting the Mother Teresa story, Abernethy showed how the world was honoring her with charitable deeds instead of mere words. He interviewed a rabbi, a minister, and a Hindu scholar about the meaning of charity in their respective traditions, dispelling some misconceptions about the Hindu caste system and pointing out that the Hebrew equivalent of the word "charity" is "justice."

Abernethy's approach to big issues is polished and positive, if a tad scatter-gun at this point. It is hoped that, as the show settles in, stories will be treated in more depth.

But there is intelligence and ambition behind this project - and, clearly, a desire to find stories about religious experience as it is worked out in individual lives. The news team's pluralistic strategy is admirable, and its open-ended inquiry involving ordinary people as well as experts will be very helpful to viewers who want to know how their Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and other neighbors envision the meaning of their lives.

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