Real reality TV

Posted: Sep 13, 2004 12:00 AM

In an age when "reality TV" features people who swallow worms and an aging businessman whose most famous utterance is "You're fired," true reality is expressed in a television show unlike any other you will see this season, or any season.

"The Question of God" (airing on PBS in two two-hour segments on Sept. 15 and 22 at 9 p.m. ET) creates a "debate" between Sigmund Freud, the atheist and founder of psychoanalysis, and C.S. Lewis, the eminent author, scholar and Christian apologist. The program is based on a popular course taught by Harvard professor Dr. Armand Nicholi. It is an honest, thoughtful and exceedingly fair summation of the main arguments for God's existence and nonexistence by educated and articulate people.

Unlike the shouting matches that too often characterize such encounters, "The Question of God" invites skeptics and believers to a table where intelligence is the appetizer, honest discussion the main course and dessert a choice of whether to believe or not. Those fed up with mental junk food will discover a gourmet meal for the mind that will challenge old prejudices and possibly stimulate some people to think about ultimate realities in new ways.

Freud and Lewis, begins the narration, "represent conflicting parts of ourselves. Whatever part we choose will determine our purpose and our whole philosophy of life."

The questions that have always been raised about God are asked and debated: Why is there so much pain and suffering in the world? What does it take to be a moral person? Is there a God?

Freud is shown beginning his life with a devoted and believing father who taught him to read by using the ancient Hebrew Scriptures. Freud, however, threw off whatever faith he had after entering university. He committed himself to reason, which his late-19th century intellectual peers embraced. Freud discarded what he regarded as the religious "superstition" of his past.

Lewis became an atheist after praying as a child that God would heal his dying mother. When she died, Lewis cast off his childlike faith. He later came to theism and then in middle age to Christianity. He said he was the most reluctant of converts.

Dr. Nicholi is the moderator and mediator of the debate and the moderator of the discussion that follows the questions about faith and evidence raised by Lewis and Freud. Historical footage of Lewis and Freud is used. Actors portray each man with credibility and sensitivity. Dr. Nicholi observes: "Whether we realize it or not, all of us possess a worldview. We make one of two basic assumptions: We view the universe as an accident, or we assume intelligence beyond the universe giving order and to some of us meaning to life."

Freud believed, "Religion is an endemic nonsense into which humanity tended to blunder." He called religion "an illusion." Lewis countered, "I believe in God as I believe the sun has risen, not because I can see it, but because by way of it I can see everything else."

There are some funny lines in the program. When the Nazis created a bonfire to burn books they didn't like, Freud remarked, "What progress we are making. In the Middle Ages they would have burned me. Now they burn my books."

Lewis said he rejected Christianity at first because of what he perceived to be its "ugly architecture, ugly music and bad poetry." He did much to reverse that image in his work at Oxford and in his magnificent books, which are more popular today than ever. One - "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" - is currently being made into a movie for release in December 2005.

An observer is invited to this program and to the discussion as a guest. All views are respectfully considered. "Crossfire" this is not.

"The Question of God" is one of the finest programs to air on television in many years. While the Federal Communications Commission is reportedly set to fine CBS $500,000 for airing a brief shot of Janet Jackson's bare breast during this year's Super Bowl, people with faith that television - which was once good - might be good again will want to haul out the accolades and awards for this program. It is worth your time to watch. It is worth your time to investigate the claims discussed. It might even restore (or enhance) your faith.