God bless PBS

Amid the many hosannas for The Question of God, the two-part PBS series hosted by Harvard's Armand Nicholi (pictured), Richard Ostling of the Associated Press delivers this surprising criticism:

Unfortunately, the biographies are interspersed with round-table chats led by Nicholi. The seven panelists are a pleasant enough group. But except for atheist Michael Shermer, who runs the California-based Skeptics Society, we're never quite sure who these individuals are, why they were invited, what religious backgrounds they reflect and why we should pay particular heed to their opinions.

[Director Catherine] Tatge booked equally amiable panelists for her Genesis series, but many were noted experts.

Many of the panelists for Moyers' Genesis series were indeed experts, but that series had its own talking-head indulgences. How many people would have thought of artist Hugh O'Donnell, Byron E. Calame of The Wall Street Journal or writer/musician/artist Elizabeth Swados as essential authorities on any biblical book?

I think the conversations between Nicholi and his guest panelists form the heart of the series. They represent the same pointed discussions that take place day after day, whether in restaurants or libraries or through popular culture, between believers and skeptics.

The more cringe-inducing aspects of the series are the depictions of the adult Freud and Lewis by actors Peter Eyre and Simon Jones. In a few moments, the program imagines Freud and Lewis in the same room, exchanging their views on religion as if Freud had just dropped by the Eagle and Child pub.

Ostling concludes with these strong points:

The believers may be so pleased PBS is even taking the God issue seriously and portraying Lewis' famous conversion that they'll overlook the subtle tilt against belief. If Lewis had been on the panel he would have answered skeptical challenges that are left hanging and have assailed Freud's lack of proof for his supposedly scientific theories.

So "Question" unwittingly indicates that faith remains on the defensive among cultural elitists, notwithstanding popular revivals and the supposed "Twilight of Atheism" proclaimed in a new book by Alister McGrath, a Lewis-style atheist turned Oxford theist.

Eric Alterman recently wrote an entertaining screed bemoaning the increasing conservative presence on PBS. It's only a matter of time before some hardened secularist pundit sees The Question of God as evidence of oppressive God-talk at PBS.

TV critic Roger Catlin of The Hartford Courant deserves praise for tweaking one PBS affiliate's discomfort with the series:

Connecticut Public TV obviously doesn't feel its viewers are up to such intellectual activity, though. So they fill prime time with three hours of reruns of the British reality series "1940s House" (CPTV, 8 p.m.), bumping "The Question of God" to 1 a.m. with a replay at 4 a.m. (in case that's a better time for you).

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