In defense of Oprah’s Belief series

Jes Kast

Oprah Winfrey aired an inspiring documentary television miniseries last week called Belief. The seven-part show focused on how religion is lived out in heartfelt ways across the globe. Belief and devotion were portrayed in a positive light. Winfrey’s dedication to sharing how religion can be used for peace and healing was refreshing. It seems that there is an increasing amount of skepticism these days about lived religion, especially Christianity, so I found a series dedicated to uplifting the good about belief as praiseworthy.

Diana Butler Bass wrote about the shifting nature of faith while reflecting on Belief in The Washington Post last week. She said, "With the move toward personal engagement with faith, the do-it-yourself revolution of religion, the word ‘belief’ is returning to an older connotation of the word. Before ‘belief’ came to mean ‘opinion,’ it typically referred to devotion or trust. It was an experiential word, and not a philosophical one, that indicated what a ‘believer’ held dear or loved. ‘Belief’ was a disposition of the heart."

This returning to the heart of belief reminds me of the conversation Jesus has in the fourth chapter of the Gospel of John with a Samaritan woman. They have a brief conversation about the meaning of worship and where to worship. Jesus says to her, “The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.” Belief points to the spirit and the essential truths of our religious practices. I heard the echoes of the prophet Isaiah as I watched Belief, proclaiming, “See! I am doing a new thing. Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?”

Belief points to the spirit and the essential truths of our religious practices.

While the focus of Belief was not solely on Jesus and while some Christian news sources have criticized its depiction of Christianity, I believe that the Gospel was adequately presented in varying ways. There is a story about a young couple, Larissa and Ian, who get married after a horrible accident that leaves Ian disabled. They share about their saving faith in Christ, who binds them together in love and commitment. At the end of their interview, Ian says that he wishes “people would know our story and that God is bigger.”

On the Belief website, Varun Soni, Dean of Religious Life at the University of Southern California, offered a description of the essential truths of Christianity. The point of departure I have with his good commentary is when he said that for Christians, Jesus is a savior. That is not fully accurate. For Christians, Jesus is the savior. And that is perhaps where some Christians will find the miniseries frustrating. I do appreciate that Soni mentions the many different sects of Christianity and said, “There is a oneness of Christians in Jesus who connects believers across the world and across time.” I heard Ephesians 4:5 in this statement: “One Lord, one faith, one baptism.”

If one watches Belief and is looking for creeds and confessions to adequately defend the Christian faith, then you will be disappointed. Yet, if one watches with a generous heart to the spirit of lived religion, one might be encouraged to find the words of Jesus — “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” — being lived out in authentic ways.

Topics: TV, Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure, Theology & The Church, Faith, Theology, Other Religions