A Little More on ‘God in American’ with Michael Emerson

PBS series ‘God in America’ traces 350 years of religious conflict

By Aaron Barnhart

The Kansas City Star

For those of you who are kinda sorta interested in spirituality-religion-type stuff but are not sure if you want to commit six hours to this week’s much-ballyhooed PBS series “God in America,” I have two words for you:

Benjamin Linus.

In a brilliant little bit of documentary casting, “Lost’s” Michael Emerson puts on period garb and plays John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, in the opening half hour of “God in America.”

Emerson — soon to be co-starring in a TV pilot with Terry O’Quinn in what’s already being called the “Locke and Linus Show” — essentially presents Winthrop as a Puritan alter ego of his “Lost” character: eyes fixed unblinking into the distance, mouth slightly open, brain spinning so hard you can practically hear it.

His nemesis this time, however, isn’t a bald former/future paraplegic but a flinty spiritualist named Anne Hutchinson, played marvelously by Laila Robins. When the sparks fly between them, the drama is as good as anything in prime time. If you loved HBO’s “John Adams,” you’re going to enjoy the first two nights of “God in America.”

There is a thread that connects every chapter in American religious history, right up to the present day, and “God in America” does a commendable job of presenting it to a general audience. That thread is the conflict between organized religion and the individual, between the public church and private conscience, between the preservation instincts of those in charge of God’s earthly institutions and the creative destruction of prophets acting on orders of the Almighty.

Such was the case with Hutchinson, whose “divine inspiration” came out in Bible studies that proved unsettling to keepers of the colonial order, such as Winthrop. In those days, when church and state were inseparable, heresy was tantamount to treason, so Winthrop put Hutchinson on trial. Their showdown — recorded in court transcripts — is staged here in rooms as spare and striking as Dutch masters paintings. And when Emerson starts to pour it on, you know poor old Anne doesn’t stand a chance.

A solid, if overly white male, cadre of religious scholars provides running commentary through 350 years of drama, as the “almost chosen people” of this republic squabble constantly over what exactly they were chosen to do.

Is it to preserve the sanctity of the home and the piety of the individual? Or right the wrongs of society and make it more like the kingdom of God? And what were those wrongs, anyway? Slavery? Abortion? Drink? Poverty? Intolerance? Federal power? Communism? Anti-communism?

Not surprisingly, there is little in American history that doesn’t reveal a religious backstory, whether it’s the arrival of Jewish and Catholic immigrants after the Civil War, the merging of the Cold War with the call to repentance in Billy Graham’s sermons or the reformist movements led by white Protestants a century ago and black Protestants 50 years later.

On the other hand, looking at everything through the lens of religion can be tiresome. PBS has not helped things by scheduling “God in America” the way it tends to do with miniseries, all at once over three nights.

And truth be told, night No. 3 is not as powerful as the first two, because the history is not quite history yet. Time is the great shaper of narratives, and not enough time has passed since the events of the final hour, which trace the rise of the Religious Right in the 1970s and ’80s and the role of Latino Christians today.

Still, for the vast majority of Americans who attend a house of worship, they could do a lot worse than devote a few Sunday school classes to discussions of “God in America”.

Source: Kansas City

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