Last month LaVon and I were invited to Montecito, California, to preview a seven-part television series produced by Oprah Winfrey called Belief. Following the preview we enjoyed supper at Oprah’s home and a chance to hear from her about the project. We were just two of over 100 religious leaders in attendance. The series begins tonight (Sunday, October 17 at 7:00 p.m. central time) and runs for seven nights on the OWN channel.
Our plane was delayed so we missed the first half of the first episode but arrived in time to see the second half of episode one and the entire second episode. I’ve not seen any of the other episodes yet. I’d like to offer a few reflections on the series and a few words about the evening at Oprah’s home.
The series is not a comprehensive introduction to the various religions it explores. Instead each episode features vignettes of religious people of a wide variety of faiths. Each vignette, perhaps ten to fifteen minutes in length, tells the story of individuals, couples, or families and how they seek and experience God.
The vignettes are beautifully filmed on location around the world. The personal stories are touching, and they demonstrate the impact each individual’s beliefs have upon their hopes, aspirations, and actions. Among the many compelling vignettes was a story, filmed in Nigeria, of a Christian pastor and a Muslim imam who had each belonged to militias that were willing to fight and kill those of the other’s religion. But these two had a kind of conversion experience and came to understand that their respective faiths called them to practice forgiveness and love. Now they are close friends who travel across Nigeria promoting peace between groups.
Other vignettes I saw included a dying aboriginal man in Australia, a grandfather, passing on his faith to his young grandson. There was also a young evangelical Christian woman whose fiancé was in an accident that caused a severe brain trauma. Despite the resulting disabilities, she and her fiancé married, a picture of Christian love.
The film series will touch the hearts of people and will help viewers to appreciate the heartfelt and earnest faith of their neighbors of other religions around the world. Oprah has done an excellent job of helping viewers see the human dimension of the various faiths she explores.
I also think the series will raise questions for many people of faith from a variety of religious traditions. First, I found myself wanting more information about the various faiths that were highlighted. I wanted to know, “Why do they believe that?” and “What else do they believe?” It quickly becomes clear that the series is not intended as an introduction to these various religions as much as it is an introduction to the impact religious beliefs of a variety of kinds have on individuals. I suspect that Oprah and her team hoped that viewers will take the time to learn more about the faiths she explores in the series.
More importantly for many people, the series will raise theological questions. Since the vignettes present the spirituality of persons of various religious traditions – Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, and others – the series naturally raises questions like, Despite their sometimes competing claims, are all religions simply different roads to God? Is one of these religions truer than others? How does God look at people of different faiths? Will all of these people ultimately receive God’s grace and the gift of everlasting life? There are many more questions like these that are raised by people of nearly every faith when studying other world religions. These are questions many people are asking today in our pluralistic world.
I suspect that it was Oprah’s hope to raise these kind of questions, and rather than offering her answers, to send the reader to do more reading and research in their quest for their answers. I believe she intended that viewers would see the beauty, earnest faith, and humanity of the people featured in the series.
Several years ago I wrote a book called Christianity and World Religions as a way of wrestling with, and providing some guidance from one Christian perspective on, the theological questions raised when contemplating the variety of world religions. It examined the similarities and differences between Christianity and four other major world religions and aimed at providing a Christian frame work for dialoguing with other faiths while not diminishing the unique claims of the Christian faith.
I believe a book like this would be a good complement to watching these episodes. I believe that small groups, Bible studies, and Sunday school classes would enjoy watching Oprah’s Belief series, but may need help sorting through the questions it raises.
On a more personal note, after watching the two episodes of the series we went to Oprah’s home in Montecito to meet her, to visit with other guests, and to share a meal. I was grateful to run into some old friends and to meet some new ones. The meal was terrific, and LaVon and I enjoyed having an opportunity to sit with Oprah at supper, which afforded us the chance to ask her questions and to discuss the project in more detail. She was engaging, remarkably gracious, and authentic. It was a memorable evening.
Tune in to Belief starting tonight at 7:00 p.m. central time on the OWN channel (channels 63 or 173 on Time Warner Cable in Kansas City). And if you find yourself wrestling with questions like those I mentioned above, you might take a look at Christianity and World Religions.