Religion Profs Critique PBS’ God Documentary, Call it Simplistic

Well, it’s over. Last week the six-hour, multi-million-dollar Frontline/American Experience production God in America aired on PBS. Now the debate over its merits begins.

Reviews from journalists have been mostly positive, although New York Times television critic Mike Hale was not totally impressed. The show, he wrote, was “stuffed with facts and dates and figures” and sometimes strained “to find a way to tie them together.” He also called it “an unusually serious and, to use a word the producers would probably rather not see, intellectual endeavor for television, one that doesn’t make many compromises for short attention spans.”

Some professional historians and scholars of American religion, in contrast, criticized the show from the opposite direction. This is not a surprise. After all, when has the academic community ever been comfortable watching its territory invaded by an army of people lacking PhDs? On blogs, religion and history listserves, and chat rooms around the country, academics have labeled the series “oversimplified,” “truly bizarre,” “simplistic,” “intolerable,” “uneventful,” “underwhelming.” Essentially they are calling the series not enough of an “intellectual endeavor.”

Furthermore, according to the Ivory Tower critics (who certainly have a deep tolerance for boredom), producers should have worried even less about viewers’ short attention spans. They have been complaining about the film’s selection of topics as well as areas missed or underexplored, from Roger Williams to Native Americans in Puritan New England to the impact of Vatican II on American Catholics to Orthodox faiths to new religious movements. In fact, I was even tipped off before the series aired that the subject of my first book—Aimee Semple McPherson—did not make the cut. A television travesty if there ever was one!

I am encouraged, though, that so many academics tuned in to PBS and that the series has provoked such a vigorous debate. Nevertheless, I wonder if we scholars should think a little more critically about what our criticisms say about us. In the last three or four decades, the distance between the academy and the public has dramatically grown. At the same time, Americans’ faith in (and their tax dollars contributed toward) American higher education has dramatically shrunk. Scholars are simply not doing a good enough job of making their research accessible and relevant to the public. Meanwhile, we have successfully mastered the art of boring people.

PBS (especially its American Experience series) has stepped into the academy-public gap, bringing together the very best scholars with writers, directors, and producers who understand what it means to reach the public through the medium of television. Even better, in the last few years, PBS—like the history profession as a whole—has caught the religion bug, producing excellent shows on Aimee Semple McPherson, Jim Jones, the Mormons, and now God in America. They should be applauded for their effort.

This is not to say that there is not room for criticism. But we need to be fair about what we are criticizing. The transcripts for this entire series are not much longer than the page count of a single academic article.

Professors: you try and fit the American religious experience from the sixteenth century to the Ground Zero Mosque into a six-hour lecture without taking some shortcuts.

Furthermore, documentary makers (much more than academics) understand that they must keep their stories simple and that their narratives must focus on a few key points. A documentary is successful when a viewer can turn off his/her television at the end of a show and summarize two or three main arguments. A documentary is not and is not supposed to be a comprehensive textbook.

This series, for example, focused on the evolving history of church-state interaction. This is certainly something Americans in the age of Glenn Beck and the Texas history standards controversy could benefit from.

While scholars are quick to criticize the limitations of the documentary genre, I am not sure that producing a series like this is, at its root, really that much different from what we do in our work. I, for example, begin each of my lectures with a PowerPoint slide that lists the three main themes I will cover that day. When we write articles, we usually focus on one central argument. Our best books, in turn, most often contain only a few more major themes.

No doubt creating a television documentary about any historical topic requires a reduction in complexity and nuance. But so does delivering a good lecture and writing a good monograph. Yet scholars tend to hold filmmakers to different standards than they hold their academic peers, and they are much too dismissive of the former. While we may be reluctant to admit it, we all simplify complexity, we all reduce our narratives to a few clear points, we all use evidence selectively, we all repackage our original sources, and we all attempt to craft engaging narratives.

In sum, those of us sitting comfortably in our cheap desk chairs in our sterile offices in the nation’s colleges and universities have no higher ground to stand on. While we all labor to maintain an appropriate level of nuance, complexity, and context in our work, there is no doubt that we could write bigger books and assign our students more reading to gain deeper contextualization and fit more people and more themes and more issues into the curriculum. But we don’t. Our best books and our best courses articulate clean, sharp arguments, have lively and engaging narratives, and are relevant. PBS is shooting for exactly the same thing.

I hope that academics will view this documentary as a step in the right direction. PBS has spent millions of dollars and solicited the advice of many of the best scholars in the nation in search of God in America, and I for one am glad they did it.

mattasutton@gmail.com'

Matthew Avery Sutton is the author of Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America (Harvard, 2007) and is associate professor of history at Washington State University.