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BY ADELLE BANKS
CHILDREN'S CARTOONS about virtue. A 10-part series on the Book of Genesis, complete with a companion book and discussions of the subject in communities across America. A documentary on the historic roots of the religious right.
These three series, scheduled to air in Public Broadcasting Service markets this fall, continue a trend that began earlier this year with two major PBS series on the world's religions and the search for spirituality in America.
What's going on here? PBS has got religion, bigtime.
“We looked at this whole area of religious beliefs and individual values as something that was especially important at this particular point in time,” said Kathy Quattrone, PBS's executive vice president of programming services. “It's certainly a subject up front and center in a whole range of debate and dialogue. It is something that we … wanted to have as an important part of our schedule.”
PBS, an umbrella organization of 345 independent public television stations, has had a long history of presenting programs focused on questions of “human existence and moral definition,” Quattrone said, citing the 1993 series, Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory, which focused on American evangelicalism, and the 1995 Martin's Lament: Religion and Race in America, which dealt with Martin Luther King's challenge to the church to lead a racial integration movement.
But the five series on religion and values PBS is launching in 1996 indicate a special emphasis on the subject.
Adventures from the Book of Virtues is a cartoon series for families adapted from the best-selling anthology edited by William Bennett, former drug czar and secretary of education in the Reagan administration. PBS's first prime-time animated series features morality lessons taken from classic literature, such as European fairy tales, Native American legends and African fables.
Bennett, a member of Blessed Sacrament Parish in Washington, said the stories chosen for the series show how “people are fearful, and yet still do the right thing.” He paraphrased author C.S. Lewis in expressing his hope that the stories bring about “a sensibility, an orientation, a view of the world, that connective tissue between the mind and the heart.”
One of the episodes deals with 11- year-old Zach learning a lesson about honesty. Characters such as Plato, a wise buffalo, and Aurora, a red-tailed hawk, share classic tales to encourage Zach to tell the truth. Three one-hour specials are scheduled to air Sept. 2-4. Other episodes are expected to air during the winter.
A few weeks later, the hour-long With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America premieres Sept. 27. The six-hour documentary series looks at the origins and development of the conservative Christian political movement.
The first episode, “The Early Crusades, 1950-1968,” features a young Billy Graham preaching his hope that Christians would bring their faith to bear on the world.
“We could turn the world upside down and start a counterrevolution, a spiritual revolution with love instead of hate and prejudice, following the Christian flag until Christ is known around the world,” Graham said in a speech before a receptive crowd.
The episode goes on to show how many of those committed to spiritual revival became politically active in conservative causes; protested the early 1960s Supreme Court decisions banning organized prayer in public schools; and launched a national drive against sex education classes.
The third series is Genesis: A Living Conversation, Bill Moyers' modern-day inquiry into the first book of the Bible, designed to appeal to people of all faiths. Each episode features dramatic readings of Bible stories by actors Mandy Patinkin and Alfre Woodard, followed by philosophical discussions moderated by Moyers with scholars, artists and scientists spanning a variety of religious and professional perspectives. The series airs Oct. 16 and subsequent Sundays, beginning Oct. 20.
In “The First Murder,” an examination of Cain's killing of his brother Abel, a rabbi and six novelists sit in a circle and discuss the modern-day challenges of controlling jealousy, envy and other human emotions depicted in the fourth chapter of Genesis.
“What I take away from the story is that violence is in all of us,” said Faye Kellerman, author of The Ritual Bath. “The ability to do bad is in all of us, and we have to confront our own ability to do evil. It lies at our doorstep, just as the text says.”
WNET, the New York public TV station presenting the Genesis series, is working with national religious and secular organizations to plan discussion groups about the series. In addition, Doubleday is publishing a companion volume to the series that will be available in October.
While advocates of quality television welcome the rising visibility of religion, Tim Graham, associate editor of MediaWatch, a publication of the Media Research Center, is questioning the motives behind PBS's new emphasis on religion and moral issues.
“We have claimed for many years that public broadcasting has a liberal bias,” said Graham, whose conservative watchdog group is based in Alexandria, Va. “I believe that airing programs on religion is a clever move to create for public broadcasting an image of conservatism or at least of moderation.”
Dorothy Swanson, president and founder of Viewers for Quality Television declined to speculate on PBS's motives. But she is enthusiastic about the value of the Adventures from the Book of Virtues cartoon series— especially for those children who don't have the opportunity for formal religious instruction.
“It's wonderful that they're doing this, and I hope it's scheduled at a time when kids don't have to choose between Power Rangers and The Book of Virtues, said Swanson, whose nonsectarian organization is based in Fairfax, Va. “I think it teaches children in a pleasant, not hitting-them-overthe- head kind of way…. How many kids go to Sunday school anymore? This kind of fills that void.”
To Moyers, whose focus on religion dates to a documentary on the Moral Majority in the mid-1980s and a critically acclaimed 1988 series on the life and work of mythologist Joseph Campbell, PBS's emphasis on religion and spirituality all boils down to one reality: People find it fascinating.
Moyers cited polls showing widespread interest in religion and an American religious landscape that has grown to include more Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus. Another measure is the 1,000 letters religion scholar Huston Smith has received from readers as a result of Moyers' profiles of him in the Wisdom of Faith series. And local stations are repeating the series, Moyers added, some of them airing it during pledge drives.
“All these trends back up the importance of covering what can no longer be ignored as a vital and dynamic, sometimes dark and often illuminating side of American life,” Moyers said. “I've always found a positive response (from PBS). I'm glad now that other young producers coming along and journalists coming along are finding the same welcome.”
CNS contributed to this report.