Friday, October 23, 2015


Oprah Winfrey's Belief TV series (on her OWN network) opens with an intriguing story of a teenage Christian girl who has come to a crisis of faith after a horrifying trauma. She joins hundreds of other teens at a high-energy, emotionally-charged Christian retreat and regains her spirit, her energy, her purpose, and a renewed sense of God’s loving presence. This segment ends with a poetically beautiful outdoor mass baptism ceremony for all retreat attendees as they surrender to God's cleansing power and they embrace the new life ahead.

Like this touching personal story, the other segments were shaped from the perspective of the individual adherents of various faiths. It is personal, it is beautiful, it is intimate, and far more compelling than any kind of lecture or academic examination of religion. The cinematography is strikingly elegant, with breathtaking images from around the globe sucking you into the story. Oprah, as one of America’s media powerhouses, has the budget to create a television series on religion that is aesthetically worthy of an IMAX theater.

The opening episode ("The Seekers") makes me anticipate the rest (now being stored on my DVR). The show appears to be what a TV series on faith should be—an examination of how religious faith makes a difference in the life of an ordinary person. I understand that Oprah takes a different view of religion than I do, and I don't expect the series to be unbiased. There is no such thing. But the series highlights everyday people telling their own faith stories on their own terms, which gives the project a feeling of fairness and authenticity. My favorite story thus far is about young Mendel, the eager son of an orthodox rabbi, preparing for his bar mitzvah, ceremonially transitioning him from a Jewish boy to (as he says) a Jewish scholar.

Instead of parading the talking heads of religious experts giving us their professorial interpretations of faith, or journalists giving us detached reports on faith, ordinary believers tell us what the faith-life is like for them, and that's what matters. Hence, I applaud Oprah for focusing on personal stories as opposed to the History Channel approach (which has it’s place) of close-up interviews of theologians sitting in darkened rooms with stained glass over their shoulders (smiling in gratitude that Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code phenomenon has made rock stars of obscure religious scholars). I care little for what an academic tells me my faith is or ought to be. What matters for me is what my faith truly is, what it can be, and what I’ll make of it. Ultimately, that’s what matters for all of us.

Oprah critics will be quick to point out her desire for everyone to see every faith as valid and “true” in its own way. But I don’t listen to Oprah Winfrey for religious instruction, and I don't encourage others to do so. As a conservative Christian, I don’t expect the series to change my faith. However, I can respect and appreciate people I disagree with, which is a central point of the series.

Despite the unseemly actions throughout history done in the name of “Christianity,” countless followers of Jesus have lived with courteous respect for people of other religions for two thousand years. They’ve had to, because they’ve often been the religious minority in notoriously hostile areas. But I’ve always believed that Christian faith is strengthened when we have honest conversations with those outside the faith. After all, that’s how Christianity has spread all around the globe.

We do not--and cannot--grow in isolation.