PBS’s American Experience: Billy Graham

As our nation continues to try to make sense of the trajectory of American Evangelicalism and its relationship with political power, PBS’s American Experience: Billy Graham is a timely and insightful. I recommend it. And after you watch, read Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne, which contains great insights into Billy Graham’s relationship with politics, race, and American ideologies of masculinity.


Recently watched: “Hail, Satan!”

Next semester, I teach my “Religion in the United States” class, so I’m watching a few documentaries over the break to increase my knowledge and understanding. One of the topics I cover is American Satanism: both The Church of Satan and The Satanic Temple. The value of this particular subunit is that is stretches students to think critically about the concept of “religion”, what counts as “religion”, and what our motives are for labeling something a religion, denying that label, or dismissing a group as a “cult”.

Earlier this year, I read Joseph P. Laycock’s Speak of the Devil: How the Satanic Temple is Changing the Way We Talk About Religion (Oxford: OUP, 2020), which I reviewed on this blog (see “Recently read: Laycock’s ‘Speak of the Devil'”) and highly recommend, and I interviewed Laycock (see “Interview: discussing The Satanic Temple with Dr. Joseph P. Laycock”). Today, I’m watching “Hail, Satan!”. It’s R-rated, so won’t make it into my classroom, but it does get me thinking about something that parallels what another colleague of mine teaches when he has students read Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good people are Divided by Politics and Religion. He has them think, based on Haidt’s writings, about why we find certain things immoral and then pushes them to explain it. An example might be incense, which has the “ick!” factor, but is hard for people to explain in terms of morality. Similarly, The Satanic Temple (as highlighted by Laycock in his book and discussed in our interview) causes many people more problems that the earlier founded Church of Satan because (1) The Satanic Temple is almost uniformly non-theistic (i.e. Satan’s valuable as a symbol but isn’t a metaphysical reality) and (2) The Satanic Temple, as the documentary highlights, wants to rectify the wrongs done to people during the “Satanic Panic” by doing widely recognized good deeds (e.g. collecting socks for those in need, especially those who are homeless).

What Laycock covers brilliantly in his book is covered quite well in documentary-style in “Hail, Satan!” This topic is a fascinating exploration of the boundaries of religious freedom, our interpretations of the First Amendment, and related topics. Whether one comes out of this discussion seeing Satanism as a legitimate religion, a mockery of religion, or whatever, the questions raised by The Satanic Temple need to be addressed by our society.

Related, for those interested in the development of the presentation of Satan in the Hebrew Bible, Jewish literature, and the Christian New Testament, see my quick summary of Ryan E. Stokes, Satan: How God’s Executioner Became the Enemy (Eerdmans, 2019): “Recently read: Stokes’ ‘Satan'”. Stokes does an excellent job covering a breadth of literature.

Next up, I plan on watching “I, Pastafari: A Flying Spaghetti Monster Story” which is available on Amazon. It’s 13+ rating means it could make it into circulation for my “Religion in Global Context” class where I introduce Pastafarianism and Dudeism as a way of introducing questions about the boundaries of the word “religion”.

The History Channel’s Jesus: His Life

This may come to a surprise to some people but I really enjoy something produced by The History Channel. No, not ancient aliens, or one of their other tabloid-esque shows. ‘Jesus: His Life’ is something they did very, very well.

As a teacher of high school-aged students, I need visuals to pair with my various lessons. ‘Jesus: His Life’ is a docudrama, so there’s acting, but unlike some Bible-related films and TV miniseries, it’s good acting. Also, since it has a documentary aspect to it, there’s talking heads that provide useful insights. In a move I applaud, they mix critical scholarship with the views of pastors, priests, bishops, and serious authors. Some of the talking heads include scholars such as Robert Cargill (U. of Iowa), Mark Goodacre (Duke U.), Shivley Smith (Boston U.), Candida Moss (U. of Birmingham), Michael Peppard (Forham U.), Nicola Denzey Lewis (Claremont Graduate School), Ben Witherington III (Ashbury Theological Seminary), Kimberly Majeski (Anderson U.); and Christina Cleveland (Duke U.); pastors, priests, and bishops such as Otis Moss III, Joel Osteen, Fr. James Martin, and Bishop Michael Curry; and authors such as Simon Sebag Montefiore.

If you’re looking for a good balance of entertainment and information, they got it right with this series which looks at Jesus through the lens of key characters from the Gospels: Joseph, Mary, Peter, Judas, Pilate, Caiaphas, Mary Magdalene, John the Baptist. Anyway, I highly recommend it.