Oprah Winfrey's 7-part television series BELIEF preimiered on October 18 on her network, OWN. The titles for the thematic episodes, narrated by Winfrey, include "The Seekers," "Love's Story," "Acts of Faith," "Change is Gonna Come," "God Help Us," "The Practice," and "A Good Life." In one of the television trailers promoting the series, Winfrey states that the goal was to help viewers see the world through the soul of others. She accomplishes this in a visually lavish production that includes powerful and moving stories of people living their religions from around the world.
The stories BELIEF presents are truly diverse. They include Evangelical Christians and Roman Catholics dealing with traumatic brain injuries, Hasidic Jews preparing for marriage, an American Muslim making his pilgrimage of Hajj to Saudi Arabia, a Nigerian Christian pastor and Muslim imam working toward peace, religious practitioners from the South Pacific and Australian aborigines, a woman becoming a Jain nun, an Indonesian Buddhist monk and a Chinese Buddhist kung fu practitioner, to more secular forms of spirituality through Burning Man Festival in Nevada, an American Hindu woman enjoying the Kumbh Mela in the Ganges River in India, as well as the stories of those who look not to religion but instead to science and music for their spiritual needs, and many more. Several of the stories involve those seeking to overcome life's challenges through their religious or spiritual practices, whether a Christian woman battling pancreatic cancer, a woman trying Sufi Islam's "whirling dervish" practices as a way of overcoming traumatic brain injury, or an Episcopalian man and his Jewish daughter participating in Burning Man as a way of addressing their grief in the tragic loss of two family members.
This series has several strengths which make it very appealing. As mentioned previously, the video is lavish and beautiful in the way in which it presents stories from various religious or spiritual practitioners. Winfrey is not content to present viewers with a dry documentary style of videography. Instead, the visuals in this series are colorful and dramatic, presenting a visual feast which draws viewers in and makes them want to know more about the individuals and the religions they follow. In addition, rather than merely presenting various talking heads, or focusing on abstract doctrinal propositions in comparative fashion from the featured religions, BELIEF presents stories from the lives of people putting their faith into practice in response to whatever life has thrown at them. The result is a series that is attractive to the eye and of interest to the heart and mind as we follow people on their journeys.
A few of the stories stood out most for me. The first appeared in Episode 2, with the story of Christian pastor James Wuye and Muslim imam Musli Muhammad Ashafa in Nigeria. Both men had been involved in violent and deadly clashes between their religious communities in the past, and both desperately wanted revenge. Over time they each looked into the depth of their respective religious traditions in order to learn to love their enemies, cast aside vengeance, and offer forgiveness. The result was an ongoing relationship between the two men where they work together in their religious communities to foster peace. The second story that stood out was that of Howard Fallon and his daughter, Shane. They lost a wife and mother to cancer, and then less than two years later they lost a daughter and sister to a plane crash. As a result they were unable to process the grief in healthy ways, and it resulted in an estranged relationship between father and daughter. They decided to attend Burning Man Festival in the desert of Nevada, and in particular the festival's memorial Temple and the burning of this structure at the conclusion of the fesival, was instrumental in providing the first steps of healing, closure, and reconnection for Howard and Shane. Given the comments Winfrey makes in the trailers promoting this series, one of her goals is to help create empathy for the religious perspectives and practices of others. To the extent that the viewer is open to the religious experience of others, I believe Winfrey was successful in this.
But BELIEF is not without its shortcomings. Winfrey's assumptions come through in the production. This includes the title of the series, BELIEF, which takes a very Western Christian approach to religion where the emphasis is on what one thinks in terms of doctrine. Winfrey seems to mean "faith" in this, referring to the trust and hope individuals invest in their religious pathways. This is confirmed by Winfrey's narration, where she says she is more concerned with what we do with our faith and the actions we take as a result. Even so, a tension exists in the series between the belief-action duality. In addition, Winfrey emphasizes love and connection to God or the divine in the series, but many religious traditions do not emphasize love or deity in their tradition. Winfrey is aware of this, as when she mentions that some expressions of Buddhism do not recognize a deity. Again, the tension between Winfrey's personal assumptions on spiritual practice and the world's religious traditions are evident in the series.
Finally, I wish Winfrey had gone further with this series. In a world where religion often contributes to conflict and violence around the world, this series had an opportunity to focus on religion as a key to resolving such clashes. Instead of including love of enemies by a Christian and Muslim leader as one segment among many moving stories in an episode, this series could have made more of an impact had an entire episode been devoted to religious conflict and diplomacy. For those who are already open to reflecting on the religions of others this series will find great resonance. But for the many who view "religious others" with suspicion, fear, and even contempt, we must not only tell religious stories of hope, but also illustrate how we can tap into the best aspects of our religious traditions in order to understand each other, emphathize, and work together despite our irreconcilable differences held in peaceful tension.
You can watch segments of each episode in this series on the BELIEF website, in additional to update videos on people featured in the series, and video introductions to the major world religions.