Inspired by the PEN American Center's conference on faith and reason, Bill Moyers decided to interview a number of the writers and thinkers that attended the conference (and a few that didn't). The result is the seven episode series On Faith and Reason that aired on PBS.
The people interviewed included scientists, novelists, children's writers and philosophers; people of faith, and no faith at all. For the most part, the interviews are quite intriguing, and a few of them are even enthralling, though there are one or two that drag a bit or tend to the superficial. Moyers' intent seems to be to explore the intersection of, and the tension between, faith and reason. This may appear to be a bit trite and indeed, it's been discussed before many times. But Moyers chooses a number of provocative people to help tease out the issues and insights lurking in that shadowy space. Though the interviews were all conducted in 2007, the topic is eternally timely, and much is discussed which is quite relevant today.
The series starts off with the powerhouse intellect of Salman Rushdie, a man not afraid to speak his mind even in the worst of times. The conversation is wide ranging, but obviously the topic of the fatwa issued against Rushdie is discussed, as well as Islam in general. Islam comes up again in detail in the Martin Amis interview, and is at least mentioned several other times as well. Rushdie is given the full hour for his segment, and he holds our attention throughout. All of the other guests, except for Buddhist nun Pema Chodron in the final episode, are given approximately half an hour.
Rushdie is the gold standard by which all the other guests are measured, and none can quite compete, though several come close. The quiet introspection of essayist Richard Rodriguez is calming but delightful, and novelist Mary Gordon has a wry humor. Even playwright and rapper Will Power makes up for any lack of intellectual credentials when compared to Rushdie with a manic energy and passion. Pema Chodron, however, makes her hour long interview drag, her insights seeming more shallow than the other guests, and her personality is not able by half to bridge the gap.
A wide range of topics is discussed, from the implications of the biblical stores of Samson and Noah's ark to global warming and the tenets of strict agnosticism. Most of the guests come across as people one wouldn't mind having a quiet discussion with over a few cups of coffee, and this personable, informal format is a large part of what makes the series work. Moyers is respectful to his guests, and most of them are open and insightful, even if they do for the most part fall into that category of people acceptable to viewers of public broadcasting, which can be a tad limiting. Political firebrands are excluded, which is essential for this format to work, but one wishes that a slightly wider net had been cast. But this is a small quibble. As presented, the series works well and helps carry the viewer through a diverse array of opinions on faith and reason.
Below is a list of episodes with descriptions as included in the DVD materials:
Episode 1: Salman Rushdie
The Indian-born author and president of the Pen American Center discusses the politicization of religion and its implications for artists.
Episode 2: Mary Gordon & Colin McGinn
New York novelist Gordon discusses the role of belief in her life, work and American culture, while British philosopher McGinn recounts his reliance on reason alone and his journey to unbelief.
Episode 3: Jeanette Winterson & Will Power
Winterson, a British author, and Power, an American playwright and rapper, explore the role of ancient myth to illuminate the human condition in their work.
Episode 4: Anne Provoost & David Grossman
What does it mean to be a "chosen people"? Belgian author Provoost and Israeli writer Grossman offer fresh viewpoints on the biblical stories of Noah and Samson, respectively.
Episode 5: Richard Rodriguez & Sir John Houghton
Two lifelong Christians - American writer Rodriguez and British climatologist Houghton - face different challenges and yet persist in their faith.
Episode 6: Margaret Atwood & Martin Amis
Canadian novelist Atwood and British novelist Amis - both agnostics - explain the portrayal of fundamentalism in their works and its role in today's world.
Episode 7: Pema Chodron
Chodron - author, Buddhist nun, and "Bodhisattva warrior" - recounts her spiritual journey and offers insights into ancient practices with particularly modern relevance.
The video is presented in 1.33:1 full screen, and generally looks good. The image is bright and clear, and the only flaw is some slight aliasing visible from time to time, particularly in wide shots. But visual beauty isn't the point of the series, and the video is more than good enough for the task at hand.
The audio is in Dolby digital 2 channel, and also does the job, but is nothing spectacular. The discussion are always clearly audible and understandable, and no hiss or other problem can be heard. Subtitles are available in English, and no alternate language track is included.
An informational pamphlet is included, which has further questions for consideration, some charts of survey results, and a short essay. The only other extras are text biographies of the guests, and a few trailers for other Athena releases.
Bill Moyers succeeds in what he set out to do: present a wide range of thoughtful people discussing the issues that come up in the intersection between faith and reason. Most of the guests are captivating, and the interviews wide ranging and revealing. One could wish that a slightly more diverse group had been chosen, but in the limited context of a seven episode series, those selected perform admirably. This one is recommended.