Written by Diane Tillis
One hundred writers gathered together at the PEN World Voices Festival in New York to discuss faith and reason. PEN is a literary and humanitarian organization that is composed of poets, essayists, and novelists. Its chief concern at the festival was the threat to freedom of speech and conscience from religious extremism. Writers from diverse backgrounds and perspectives came together in an open forum to discuss their experiences with faith and reason. Bill Moyers: on Faith & Religion is a collection of interviews with twelve renowned authors who were among the speakers at the PEN World Voices Festival. Bill Moyers interviewed them on their background, literary works, how they related to faith and religion, and what they hoped to see for the future.
Episode One is with writer Salman Rushdie who talks about good and evil, religion as a political weapon, and the power of conscience. In 1988, Rushdie published a novel called “The Satanic Verses” which was a satire based in part on the life and teachings of the prophet Muhammad. He then spent the next ten years underground, moving from safe house to safe house, hiding from Islamic assassins. The novel was considered to be blasphemous and an insult to the prophet Muhammad. Rushdie was able to come out of hiding in 1998 when the contract against his life was lifted. However, he continued to endure threats against his novel, demands to have it removed from circulation and for it to be banned. Rushdie became a public champion for free speech and a critic of fundamentalism. His nine novels have been translated into forty languages. As the PEN American Center president, he was the one to suggest a gathering of poets, essayists, and novelists from across the globe to discuss faith and reason.
Episode Two is split between Mary Gordon and Colin McGinn. Writer Mary Gordon discusses keeping the faith in a world of fanaticism and consumerism. She has written novels, essays, and memoirs chronicling Catholic life in America. Her novel “Pearl” depicted an Irish-American mother whose faith is challenged when her daughter slowly starves herself on a hunger strike. Philosopher Colin McGinn talks about life as an atheist in a God-filled world. McGinn has lived with the impulse to question the world around him for many years. His best known book, “The Making of a Philosopher,” charts his intellectual journey. It begins in his boyhood as the son of a poor mining family of Catholics in England, to his studies at Oxford, and beyond. He has also written a philosophical study on how movies influence us and will soon publish a study of Shakespeare.
Episode Three is split between Jeanette Winterson and Will Powers, who take ancient myths and transform them to represent difficulties encountered in modern times. Jeanette Winterson discusses ancient gods and heroes and the different ways of finding truth. Her parents were Pentecostal evangelists. They restricted their children’s reading material so much that young Jeanette Winterson began sneaking novels into her room and hiding them under her bed. Her love of ancient stories sent her on the campaign to explain why myths still matter. Her novel “Weight” is an interesting take on the classical Greek story of Atlas, the titan whose fate was to hold the universe on his shoulders for all eternity. Will Powers talks about Oedipus, hip-hop, God, and inspiration. Powers is the son of activist parents from San Francisco’s famous Fillmore District. He moved to New York to become an actor, composer, playwright, and rapper. His off-Broadway play “The Seven” is based on the ancient Greek myth of the sons of Oedipus. In the interview, Powers discusses the process of ‘flipping’ relevant to the hip-hop community as taking something old and turning it into something relevant and powerful for today.
Episode Four is split between Anne Provoost and David Grossman. Anne Provoost discussed the dilemma of worshipping a God who plays favorites. Provoost is Belgium’s prize-winning writer of children’s books. She has written several novels for young people on subjects like sexual abuse, guilt, the seductive power of fascism, penance, and mercy. Her latest, “In the Shadow of the Ark,” is the story of Noah and the Ark during the great flood of “Genesis”. The theme of the story is what happens when the boat is full. Provoost discussed how the stories of the Bible are open to a wide range of interpretation and analysis; Noah’s is just one of them. David Grossman discussed the tragic end of Samson whose life is confiscated by God. Grossman is one of Israel’s premier writers. He has produced over nine novels, several children’s books, and some noted works of journalism. His latest novel, “Lion’s Honey,” casts Samson as a lonely and bewildered man, destined and doomed to do God’s will.
Episode Five is split between Richard Rodriguez and Sir John Houghton. Richard Rodriguez discusses looking death in the face and listening for God in the desert. He is the Catholic son of poor Mexican immigrant parents. An accomplished man of letters and master of the personal essay, he writes from his collected memories and thoughts. His memoir “Hunger of Memory” is used wildly in schools and colleges. In the interview, Rodriguez discusses facing death and learning from the journey. He also discusses the difference between reason and unreason from a writer’s perspective. Sir John Houghton is a scientist at peace with doubt and belief. While Richard Rodriguez hears God in the solitude of the desert, Sir John Houghton looks up to outer space for his solitude. Born of Baptist parents in Wales, he is one of the world’s leading experts on climate change. By the 1970s, he was designing instruments for NASA satellites. He was named the director general in 1983 for the British Meteorological Office. Houghton’s novel “Global Warming: The Complete Briefing” and subsequent work has led the world to believe that global warming is real.
Episode Six is split between Margaret Atwood and Martin Amis. Margaret Atwood questions the effects when God and politics clash. An agnostic, she believes her work as a writer is to describe the world around her, including what is obscure or hidden. Her latest novel, “The Penelopiad,” reversed the perspective of Homer’s epic “The Odyssey.” We experience the story through the eyes of Penelope, the wife of Odysseus, and a chorus of 12 maids who were hanged when her husband returned from the Trojan War. Atwood has written twelve novels and fifteen books of poetry. In the interview, Atwood described her novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” as a blueprint for the kind of things human beings do when they are put under a certain sort of pressure. She references back to the history of the Puritans and the Salem witch trials as clashes between mythology and politics. Atwood reminds us that things go around in cycles. Martin Amis talks about the types of people with the mind that can kill for God. Also agnostic, Amis is a prolific author of more than twenty books of fiction, criticism, and autobiography. His latest source of inspiration began on September 11, 2001. The suicide bombers who committed the atrocities became Amis’ focus. His novel “The Last Days of Muhammad Atta” recount the life of Muhammad Atta who led the 9/11 attacks. In the interview, Amis discussed the Extreme Laws of Islam and the terror that surrounds them.
Episode Seven is devoted to Pema Chödrön who discusses her life as a spiritual journey and her passion to end suffering. Having spent thirty years as Buddhist nun, her interview went beyond faith and reason. Chödrön has written several novels such as “When Things Fall Apart,” “The Places that Scare You,” and “No Time to Lose.” Her readers discover modern insights into the ancient practices of Buddhism. Buddhism is not so much a religion as it is a way of life. It marks no divide between the sacred and the secular. In the interview, Chödrön discussed her goal to help the de-escalation of violence and aggression and the escalation of loving kindness and compassion through her teachings. Chödrön describes the path of Buddhism as how the individual works with their own mind and how that affects the family, the society, the nation, and the world.
Bill Moyers: on Faith & Religion covers a wide range of beliefs, perspectives, and topics. The program was designed to present faith and reason as discussed at the PEN World Voices Festival. The common goal of the interviewees was to present faith as keeping an open heart and reason as a means of keeping an open mind.
The video aspect ratio is 1.33:1. The picture fills up the television screen nicely. The quality is average, but better than I would expect from a PBS production.
The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 with English audio and subtitles. The audio is crystal clear. I had the subtitles on only because they helped me to write down notes, but you will find no need for them unless you are hearing-impaired.
Each disc has Participant Biographies of the interviewees. They contain more background information and novels they have written. Some of the information is redundant unless you didn’t pay attention to the introductory segment in the beginning of each episode on the interviewees. The box collection as includes a twelve page Viewer’s Guide with questions to consider while watching the interviews, the history of PEN, and an explanation of fundamentalism.
I found myself intrigued by some of the interviewees and their perceptions of faith and reason. This collection of interviews by renowned authors is not about preaching how their views of religion are the right ones. Instead they take the time to discuss how religion and faith have influenced the way they write. They discuss the changing nature of religion in society, the history of religion, and how it is applied in the arts. I studied Greek and Roman mythology in college and was greatly interested by the authors who use these stories in their works. I read Margaret Atwood’s “The Penelopiad” for fun and enjoyed the opportunity to hear her perspective. This collection is really meant for teachers to present a new perspective on religion to their students. It allows students to make up their own minds about what religion means to them and to not feel judged by those decisions. Hearing so many different people speak of a unifying subject helped me to refine my own opinions for the positive. However, the person who tends to spend some time watching documentaries or interviews with literary scholars on television will find this collection appealing as well.