That’s the key word in “God in America,” which airs Monday October 11 through Wednesday October 13 from 9 to 11 p.m. (Check local listings; and note: Some stations also repeat the programs late at night.)
“God in America” itself is a whole new approach to exploring religion on television. We’re talking about an extensively researched and elaborately produced 6-hour documentary on the history of religion in the United States. This series has such a big budget that the producers were able to stage historical recreations of crucial scenes in American history. There also are surprises in store for viewers, especially fans of the TV show “LOST.” In the opening minutes tonight, we see a pensive Michael Emerson—the infamous Benjamin Linus from “LOST.” This opening sequence also includes an ocean shore, a man wandering in the wilderness and a glimpse of Emerson in a dark, cave-like shelter. Overall, it’s an eye-popping reference to the “LOST” series—and a creative, thought-provoking connection made for “LOST” fans.
We think that’s good! All of us who care about Religious Literacy 101 want people who might otherwise switch channels to stick with this series and learn a few things. (Remember, the annual Pew survey just reminded us that most Americans can’t name the 4 gospels.)
“NEW” is a distinctive theme in American religious life—and PBS shows that 100 percent correctly in this new series. In fact, America is indeed unique in the world. We are a unique blend of intense and widespread religious commitment, great religious diversity—and an American assumption that self-expression is our birth right, even when it comes to our religious traditions.
The series nails this provocative yet very important theme. For example, in the opening sequence tonight, narrating voices telling us: “When the first Europeans came to the New World, they brought with them Christian traditions and beliefs that had endured for more than 1,000 years. But in this new land, religion would have to change. It’s this new place. The New World. The New Jerusalem. … Something new is being made here. And what’s being made precisely—is up for grabs. This is the story of America’s struggle from old religion—to new. … It’s a story that will change American religion forever and will help give birth to America’s identity.”
A NEW approach to Native American voices. ReadTheSpirit is deeply committed to sharing Native American voices. Among our efforts, we publish “Dancing My Dream,” a Native American memoir by Warren Petoskey. So, we celebrate the fact that the new PBS series takes seriously the Native American perspective in the European collision after 1492. Mostly, Native voices tend to be segregated by documentary filmmakers into features specifically focused on Indian life. It’s great to see a range of contemporary Native American voices appear in this series especially as it opens tonight.
A NEW “take” on historical figures. Thank goodness the producers of this series didn’t give us another costume drama with more attention to ruffled collars than the substance and feeling of the characters. I think most viewers will be intrigued to see Michael Emerson play John Winthrop, the visionary political and religious leader who, in 17th-century Massachusetts, played a turbulent role in shaping American life. Winthrop is perhaps most famous today for giving us the phrase “City upon a Hill.” There’s something downright eerie about seeing the Benjamin Linus character from “LOST”—also a turbulent and visionary leader—suddenly morphing into Winthrop in this series. Emerson/Linus actually utters the famous “City upon a Hill” passage in the first episode of “God in America.” I think readers will enjoy puzzling over the underlying associations cleverly woven into this production. One great discussion question for the legion of “LOST” fans: How is Benjamin Linus like John Winthrop?
Care to read or see more?
PURCHASE THE DVD: You can pre-order PBS’ “God in America” on DVD from Amazon now. .
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