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PBS tackles ‘The Question of God’

It could be the ultimate challenge for a TV show: Debating the topic of God’s existence.

How do you bring that subject down to earth? And what on earth do you do for visuals?

But the ineffable can be made accessible.

Behold: “The Question of God,” two unusual two-hour programs airing on PBS Wednesday and Sept. 22 (check local listings) with home video to follow.

Director Catherine Tatge produced past PBS series about mythology scholar Joseph Campbell and the Bible’s Book of Genesis, both hosted by Bill Moyers.

“Question” stems from a book of the same title by psychiatrist Armand Nicholi, who for decades has taught Harvard University courses that compare the lives and religious thought of this odd couple:

—Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), the founder of psychoanalysis, arguably the most influential atheist of modern times (now that the credibility of communist Karl Marx has imploded).

—C. S. Lewis (1898-1963), English literature scholar at Oxford and Cambridge universities, a hard-bitten atheist who then embraced Christianity and became arguably the era’s most influential defender of belief.

What would Freud say?These two fascinating fellows allow Tatge to leaven the inevitable talking heads with documentary materials and dramatized re-creations from their lives, artfully filmed in European locales and using their actual words. Peter Eyre plays Freud (yes, complete with cigar) and Simon Jones is a pipe-puffing Lewis.

There’s rich Freudian material here. If God is merely the projection of childhood wishful thinking, as Freud thought, did Sigmund himself spurn God because he rebelled against Daddy? And did young Lewis turn atheist because Daddy packed him off to a cruel boarding school after his beloved Mommy died?

Unfortunately, the biographies are interspersed with round-table chats led by Nicholi. The seven panelists are a pleasant enough group. But except for atheist Michael Shermer, who runs the California-based Skeptics Society, we’re never quite sure who these individuals are, why they were invited, what religious backgrounds they reflect and why we should pay particular heed to their opinions.

Tatge booked equally amiable panelists for her Genesis series, but many were noted experts.

The believers may be so pleased PBS is even taking the God issue seriously and portraying Lewis’ famous conversion that they’ll overlook the subtle tilt against belief. If Lewis had been on the panel he would have answered skeptical challenges that are left hanging and have assailed Freud’s lack of proof for his supposedly scientific theories.

So “Question” unwittingly indicates that faith remains on the defensive among cultural elitists, notwithstanding popular-level revivals and (speaking of wishful thinking) the supposed “Twilight of Atheism” proclaimed in a new book by Alister McGrath, a Lewis-style atheist turned Oxford theist.

Nicholi’s book is far more satisfactory than the TV version on the pros and cons, especially the pros. The programs seem to reflect less of Nicholi, a churchgoing Protestant, than of Tatge, a former Catholic on a “faith journey” married to an agnostic who co-produced.

At the conclusion, Nicholi intones, “Is it possible that Freud and Lewis represent conflicting parts of ourselves, a part of us that yearns for relationship with the source of all joy, hope and happiness ... and another part that raises its fist in defiance?”

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