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Reality TV, 'The Christians' and Exploring Belief


The cast of Breaking Amish in New York.

Photo by LWp Kommunikáció.

What does a recent rash of TV shows focusing on religious subjects such as Breaking Amish, Big Love, and Reza Aslan’s upcoming Believer reveal about our fascination with the collision of deeply held beliefs, doubt, and different perspectives on religion?

We have to look no further than the reality show Breaking Amish to see why these stories of crises of faith are so compelling. The show follows a group of five young people (four Amish and one Mennonite) who move to New York City to decide whether to remain in their restrictive faiths or leave them and their families permanently. Although its form, structure, and tone are very different, The Christia​ns, which plays the Mark Taper Forum through January 10, 2016, explores similar issues as Paul, an Evangelical pastor, puts his success and his good standing in his community on the line following a change in his beliefs.

At a time when interest in and adherence to organized religion is falling, and less than 20% of Americans attend church on weekly basis according to a study by C. Kirk Hadaway and P.L. Marler, these shows draw massive viewership, with new programs premiering all the time.

Despite a few prominent examples of shock value, many of these religious television shows grapple with deep and meaningful issues in a respectful and inspiring way. Preachers of L.A. on Oxygen follows a group of Christian prosperity theology pastors and bishops. While their personal dramas are portrayed in the overly dramatic aesthetic typical of reality TV, the actual religious aspects of their work and lives are treated seriously. Similarly, in Return to Amish on TLC, which follows the Breaking Amish cast after they either return to their communities or break away, the Anabaptist religious and cultural traditions are never mined for superficial emotional effect. This approach led to critical acclaim for Return to Amish and substantial success for Preachers of L.A., including several possible spin-off series.

Attempting to honestly communicate and understand incredibly different viewpoints and beliefs seems central to the fascination and interest in these shows—and is central to The Christians as well. “I have a powerful urge to communicate with you, but I find the distance between us insurmountable,” Pastor Paul says over and over again.

Prominent religious scholar Reza Aslan, a professor of creative writing at UC Riverside, knows this distance all too well. In a 2013 interview with Fox News for his book Zealot, Aslan was grilled on his personal beliefs and scholarly credentials because he was a Muslim man writing about Jesus. His measured response in the interview went viral and catapulted Aslan into cultural celebrity. Now, Aslan is set to premiere his own show, Believer, on CNN in 2016, which will explore different cultures through religious practices. You can get a taste of what Aslan’s approach will be in a 2013 Washington Post interview in which he explains how his ideas about religion has evolved, and where they stand today: “It’s not [that] I think Islam is correct and Christianity is incorrect. It’s that all religions are nothing more than a language made up of symbols and metaphors to help an individual explain faith,” he said.

The Christians asks its audience—whatever their personal religious or political opinions—to consider what makes belief holy, and if that holiness is truly diminished by those who believe differently. If you’re a fan of Preachers of L.A., Breaking Amish, or even Big Love, you’ve probably considered these questions before—and now is a good time to ask them again.

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