Oprah Winfrey’s new series Belief, which premiers this month, offers a fresh glimpse of what it means to be a person of faith in an era in which people are increasingly spiritual but not religious and where anti-Muslim and immigrant sentiments permeate political debates. I got to preview the series at her home in Montecito, where she spoke to her motivation: “My faith always motivated me to to make a difference with my life.” As in so much of her work, Oprah manages to capture sincere belief in an age of doubt and insecurity.
Belief is relevant whether you are a devout weekly churchgoer or worship at Starbucks with the New York Times in hand. This series explores the doubt and personal challenges that every human being—whatever their faith or lack thereof— must face in order to strengthen her soul. It offers a different take on religion in an era of failed institutions: belief is not just a set of teachings. Faith is lived. For those suspicious of unfamiliar faith experiences, the series offers a chance to overcome biases and see our common humanity. And in an era when politicians fear-monger against immigrants, Muslims or any faith, the series promises to challenge stereotypes and win hearts.
Unlike other religion documentaries that explore dogma, Belief follows the quests of average people from radically different traditions. They all share one thing in common: they are seekers. They question their own beliefs or pursue spiritual lives in the face of conflict, violence and the challenges of rapid cultural change. From an Orthodox Jewish pre-teen in Budapest who asks doubtfully, “Is God an old man with a long white beard,” to a young woman who has lost her faith after being raped, to a Nigerian Muslim and Christian who end years of brutal conflict between their two communities, each of Oprah’s vignettes show the courageous journeys taken by everyday people when confronted by doubt and human failing.
Rather than dishing the usual pablum about religious experiences, these stories are gritty while exploring a range of spiritual encounters that are foreign to many Americans. An American Muslim convert finds himself transformed by a pilgrimage to Mecca. A young African-American woman finds her way back to faith at a Pentecostal revival. A Hasidic Jewish couple celebrates the beauty and excitement of two soulmates being united in marriage. A Maori tribesman transfers his spiritual leadership to his modern grandson. Even as viewers are challenged by the differences in these faith and life experiences, the common human experience shines through: we are all pilgrims on a journey toward love, compassion and meaning.
Many of us have experienced religion as a set of rigid beliefs forced down our throats; questions are frowned upon or lead to being shunned. But the heroes of Oprah’s stories seek meaning by questioning faith, bucking tradition, or taking surprising paths to deepen their own lives of compassion. They seek not so much what to believe as much as how to live belief.
In an era when so many reject religion because of the claptrap or offensive behavior they see in the media, the heroes of Belief remind us that spiritual growth is up to each of us and that no institution should stand in our way.
The series airs October 18-24h at 8/7c on OWN TV.
The Rev. Jennifer Butler is the CEO of Faith in Public Life.
I am SO SO SO SO excited for this to start. Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday brought me back to my Christian faith.