Don’t miss “God in America”

First impressions of PBS’ God in America, with some filling out by dialog with the series executive producer Mike Sullivan in today’s open chat on Patheos.  Maybe I should have divided the material into more than one post, but some friends have been dropping emails to post it all ASAP 😉  So here you are …

  1. What is PBS’ God in America?
  2. Positives points
  3. What didn’t sit well, including some recommendations …

Don’t worry more is coming, including a tie back into the Elizabethtown College and Peacemaking series.  But I so much want to hear from you, scholars and the academically minded (from across the disciplines, not just history) and human beings (who may or may not be “Americans,” who may or may not be followers of Christ).  Note:  If you haven’t seen the series or missed some segments of the series, you can watch the whole series here (on-line, free)!

What is PBS’ God in America?

For the first time on television, God in America explores the tumultuous 400-year history of the intersection of religion and public life in America, from the first European settlements to the 2008 presidential election. A co-production of AMERICAN EXPERIENCE and FRONTLINE, this six-hour series examines how religious dissidents helped shape the American concept of religious liberty and the controversial evolution of that ideal in the nation’s courts and political arena; how religious freedom and waves of new immigrants and religious revivals fueled competition in the religious marketplace; how movements for social reform — from abolition to civil rights — galvanized men and women to put their faith into political action; and how religious faith influenced conflicts from the American Revolution to the Cold War. — (10/14/2010, 9:49 am)

First Impressions

  • Positives points:
    • Yes, the story of America can be told as multiple journeys to “The New Eden,” one in which “Exodus” after “Exodus” occurs in smaller and larger settings.  In my mind this leads to the wrestling with what “Exodus” with what “people” are we headed on, en route to whose “Eden” and whose “god(s)” [or the indifference/denial of god(s)]?  Are these specific in nature, filled out a little bit, or such a big tent/large cloak that it’s hard to define what is going on, the chaos which concerned some of the early religious leaders (but I would add is a cyclical religious/cultural concern)?
    • As brought to our attention by the Pew Foundation’s U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey, such efforts are needed to address shortfalls not only in self-knowledge, but also the ability to relate to, communicate clearly with, and care for “our neighbor” (including through governmental services).  If you haven’t already …
    • The website has a plethora of superb resources.  Not only could you watch the episodes as they finished (so now the whole series is posted), but there is material to fill in what didn’t make the cut, e.g., People & Ideas and a study guide.
  • What didn’t sit well:
    • The beginning.  Yes, the “Americas/the New World” extended into the Southwest, but I think that it’s a stretch to say that the influence of the Christian God in relationship to the United States of America began in the Southwest.  East Coast settlements/explorations and their relationships to the Native Americans could have addressed the differing views of “God in America” alongside the growth of a “Christian Nation.”  The material such as the Pueblo War could have been part of a flashback of religion’s relationship to Western expansion, but this topic (in which I’d include The Church of Latter Saints and various other uniquely American religious traditions) missed the cut.  It also set the stage of “God in America” (and by inference the Roman Catholic Church) as one of conflict, a theme woven throughout the series.
    • Alternative approaches to the settlement of America and perspective on “God in America,” could have filled out the complexity of church-state relationships, e.g., Anabaptists, the Dutch (e.g., New Amsterdam), Quakers (not just those responsible for Pennsylvania), Roman Catholics in Maryland, Roger Williams in Rhode Island (where Anne Hutchinson went.  Not mentioned in the show), Unitarians (not just Joseph Priestly who settled in Pennsylvania, but the shift of faith in New England.  This could flow into Transcendentalism, Humanism).
    • Historical dramatizations (click here):  one of my friends likened the first evening’s historical dramatizations to “science fiction.”  The interviews of contemporary figures in the final episode, made me wonder whether “interviews” of historical figures would have been better at times in earlier episodes.  Note:  I particularly appreciated the historical dramatization of Frederick Douglass, click here.
      • Interviews (click here):
        • Would be helpful to clearly denote who is being interviewed each time you hear from them.  At times it was hard for me to keep track of all the interviewees and connect the dots as to why they’re “an expert,” but maybe I’m one of the few with such interests 😉   I came across bios of highlighted experts here. They’re conveniently sectioned by episode.  Special feature: I love the ability to click on a bio to open an ‘edited transcript’ of the original interview.
        • As my friend John, “I was disappointed that they did not have an interview with Billy or Franklin Graham as part of the series (maybe they tried and he/they declined).”  In the on-line Patheos chat, Mike Sullivan, commented that he focused on Billy Graham as an emblematic character in America’s 1950s religious revival, i.e., not his personal story/biography.  I wonder if this is one of my concerns with regard to the larger than life portrayal of American history (and key figures) which emerges from a representative story approach.  Is that part of the emphasis on the acting in the dramatizations?
        • The topic requires more than the perspective of religious historians, e.g., political scientists, sociologists, theologians (Note: a few were included).  In the on-line Patheos chat, Mike Sullivan emphasized that he was focused upon religious history and the story which was being told.  I guess you find me quite close to John Coleman, S.J., a sociologist and assistant pastor at St. Ignatius Church in San Francisco, California, in this aspect of my critique, click here.  As for historians, wish Mark Noll would have been given more time and that we would have heard from Nathan Hatch and George Marsden.  It was good to see snippets of Harry Stout, Grant Wacker, Lauren Winner.  Sullivan affirmed the Hatch, Marsden, and Noll as “good people … But there was only room for a certain number of experts so the series would have a little continuity to it. We looked for bright and fair-minded people who had a grasp on this history. And in general I think we succeeded.”  — open chat on Patheos, 10/14/2010, noon – 1 pm.
        • Despite my appreciation for Stephen Prothero, he received too much time and his framing of the narrative was not challenged.  In particular, we never heard from Christians who critique the understanding of America as a Christian nation. For example …
          • Radio Smart Talk for Monday, October 11: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” That’s the very first line in the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights. It couldn’t be much clearer –the state cannot establish a national religion. And yet, how many times have we heard someone claim the United States is a “Christian nation?”What motivates that notion – and what’s meant by it?  Dr. Richard Hughes, a Professor of Religion at Messiah College explores this question in his book Christian America and the Kingdom of God. In it, Hughes considers why some believe this concept of the United States as a Christian nation, and how, throughout our history, religious and political leaders have used this belief to reinforce a sort of messianic nationalism, characterizing the U.S. as God’s “chosen nation” – a view Hughes holds has led to an increase in power and influence among fundamentalist Christians, but has ironically led to unchristian behavior.
      • Length:  Apparently it was thought that Americans would not watch more than six hours of “God in America.”  I don’t agree.  Maybe this could be a teaser with some expansion in areas I’ve mentioned 😉  Couldn’t agree more with my friend who commented, “The series could have been longer as well with more in-depth coverage of some of the more pivotal issues and events.”  Similar to Mike’s comments on my earlier Groshlink post:
  • You have to give them credit for trying, but these relatively brief specials on religious topics seem awfully inadequate compared to how the media covers other topics. 6 hours devoted to 400 years of religious history? Sound like a lot, until you look around at other documentary series. Compare it to Ken Burns’ specials: 10 hours on the Civil War, 20 hours on a 150 years of baseball, 12 hours on the national parks system. ESPN is the middle of a “30 for 30” series of documentaries – 30 films, each an hour long, devoted to a hyper-specific “moment” in sports. The concept and length start to seem awfully inadequate compared to the scope and importance of the subject matter.” — Mike, Oct 12 2010, 12:32
    • Still thinking about:  How about religious figures who were not aggressive in the public sphere, but inspirational to the public regarding “God in America” or “America’s God?”  Who would you highlight in this category?
    • Still thinking about:  How about the influence of followers of Christ on the development of higher education in America, not just fundamentalism/evangelical retreating to the creation (or should we say a re-founding) of colleges/universities?  How would you recommend incorporating this story into a series such as “God in America.”
    • Time for me to stop. … More later.  Please share your thoughts.
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Tom Grosh IV

Tom enjoys daily conversations regarding living out the Biblical Story with his wife Theresa and their four girls, around the block, at Elizabethtown Brethren in Christ Church (where he teaches adult electives and co-leads a small group), among healthcare professionals as the South Central PA Area Director for the Christian Medical & Dental Associations (CMDA), and in higher ed as a volunteer with the Emerging Scholars Network (ESN). The Christian Medical Society / CMDA at Penn State College of Medicine is the hub of his ministry with CMDA. Note: Tom served with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship / USA for 20+ years, including 6+ years as the Associate Director of ESN. He has written for the ESN blog from its launch in August 2008. He has studied Biology (B.S.), Higher Education (M.A.), Spiritual Direction (Certificate), Spiritual Formation (M.A.R.), Ministry to Emerging Generations (D.Min.). To God be the glory!

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    Micheal Hickerson commented on October 15, 2010 Reply

    Thanks, Tom, for the review. I’ve got 2 of the 3 episodes on DVR (my power went out and I missed the 2nd) and I look forward to watching them soon. For an analysis from a different perspective, The Wild Hunt (a Pagan blog) has a review here from Jason Pitzl-Waters. His basic take-away from the first episode – not enough coverage of minority and non-mainstream religious movements.

  • Tom Grosh IV commented on October 15, 2010 Reply

    Although coming from a different perspective and headed in a different direction, I’m for the most part “on board” with Jason’s review. I’m looking forward to reading his full review of the series.

    Related, my wife Theresa passed along to me America’s True History of Religious Tolerance (Kenneth C. Davis. Smithsonian Magazine. October 2010)*. All of these pieces remind me, how important it is for “the generations” and “various segments of culture/society” to come together at times to dig into a less “sanitized” version of what really happened and hear out one-another. I think that this would better enable us to deal with the “real world,” particularly as we step into the future confessing that we each (as individuals and members of various subcultures)have a vision for “The New Eden” and invest in it to the best of our abilities.

    As you know, I do not believe that we will attain “The New Eden” while on this earth and we should be wary of “enforcing The New Eden,” although common ethics/good/grace are necessary for the functioning of society. No doubt this is part of my shared interest with Jason regarding “the marginalized” with “other ideas.”

    With regard to both articles and “God in America,” running an institution/society is a much more complicated than the simple practice of faith/religion. Just because one identifies (or has been identified) with a particular religious tradition/group does not mean that there is the practice of the teachings of the particular religious tradition/group (and doesn’t preclude the influence of other religious or societal groups with which one may not be publicly identified). In addition, it’s possible that a given religious tradition/group has little to offer (or even conflicting opinions) when facing particular questions/conflicts in education, family, health care, politics, war, etc. Regrettably, the American religious landscape reflects the larger individualistic American culture (attributable to the Fall/sin/separation from God’s way, but encouraged by the American sense of “rights”) is covered with conflict, divisions, and personalities (and personality cults). Although that may represent “God in America” or the God of America, that does not represent following Christ and the cost of discipleship.

    I would have liked to see illustrations of religious people/groupings who influenced societal life without heavy political engagement, those who were a ‘city on the hill.’ Maybe our form of government/society largely leads those with influence into relationship with causes/government/governmental leaders or the other way around. … that is the story being told by the series, but I’m not convinced 😉 Note: some of the influence comes from beyond our borders, as Whitfield and the Wesleys, we have received great influence from Gandhi, C.S. Lewis, Mother Teresa. …

    During yesterday’s Patheos chat, there was interest expressed in PBS shows on “Agnostics in America,” “Atheists in America,” “Pagans in America,” “The Secular Movement.”

    *Check out some of the comments, in particular the delving into the Church of Latter Day Saints and the Native Americans. A topic for another post/comment.

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