When ReligionWriter’s husband first saw a press copy of CNN’s new six-hour documentary, “God’s Warriors,” lying around the house, he said he looked forward to learning about famous heroes and soldiers in the Jewish, Muslim and Christian traditions.

He was disappointed, then, when the first segment, “God’s Jewish Warriors,” which will air next Tuesday, Aug. 21, at 9 p.m. EST, instead focused on a parade of unrepentant Jewish terrorists, unsmiling Israeli settlers and vaguely frightening Jewish Americans who raise money for illegal Jewish settlements.

In her stand-up intro to all three segments, Amanpour defines God’s Warrior’s this way:

Over the last 30 years, each faith [Judaism, Islam and Christianity] has exploded into a powerful religious force, with an army of followers who share a deep dissatisfaction with modern, secular society and a fierce determination to bring God and religion back into daily life, back to the seat of power. We call them “God’s Warriors.”

This definition would seem to leave room for Jews who take their religion seriously and use it for ends more positive than the construction of illegal settlement outposts in the West Bank. Or the heroes of Jewish faith that ReligionWriter’s husband had hoped to learn about.

After watching the Jewish segment, one would have the idea that “God’s Warriors” is simply a novel, neutral phrase to refer to fundamentalists, extremists and the religiously unreasonable.

But if you watch the other two segments, the definition of “God’s Warriors” is expanded to include other more harmless, even positive examples. In the “God’s Muslim Warrior” segment, which will air next Wednesday, Aug. 29, Amanpour focuses on a 20-something American Muslim woman from Long Island who insists that jihad for her means wearing dressing modestly and observing her faith within the context of an often-unsupportive American culture. She engages in her own free-form translation of jihad.

Holy war? Really, who made that up? That is a very bad translation. It’s [actually] a self-struggle. Living in a secular society where you have to work to maintain your Islamic values? That’s jihad.

Since Amanpour allows this American Muslim to define faith in her own non-violent, personal-piety-focused American way, it seems strange that the Jewish segment did not include a similar profile. Instead, the only counterpoint comes in the form of a quiet Israeli veteran of the 1967 war, who prefers classical music to religion and likes bacon on his sandwiches. Why not also show an American Jew who, instead of using the Torah to insist on the Jewish right to occupy land, uses that same text to work towards reforming American society?

For the viewer, then, it’s never quite clear who “God’s Warriors” are, in the same sense that it’s never quite clear from the “War on Terror” who the enemies are.

Why now?

As the viewer watches footage of Israeli teens weeping while the Gaza settlements are bulldozed, hears ominous drum beats while photos of Osama bin Laden flash across the screen and sees pro-life demonstrators marching on Washington, the questions arises: Why make this series now?

Israel/Palestine, in spite of many protestations that it lies at the heart of turmoil in the Middle East, is on the political back-burner in the U.S. right now. And the story of Osama bin Laden and even Egyptian writer Seyyid Qutub has been oft-told. (Indeed, the footage and narration on Qutub, whose book, Milestones on the Road, is credited with birthing jihadist ideology, covered almost the exact same ground as PBS’ documentary, Jihad: The Men and Ideas Behind Al Qaeda, which aired this June.)

We know about these phenomenon: Why not help us understand them? Amanpour wisely turned to religious historian and popular writer Karen Armstrong for explanations. Armstrong’s 2001 book, The Battle for God, which explores the rise of fundamentalism in Judaism, Islam and Christianity, is, in the view of ReligionWriter, one of the best popular titles on religion, period, and is essential reading for anyone wanting to understand religious extremism in the modern world.

Unfortunately, Armstrong appears only fleetingly through the documentary, and the central insights of her book receive only passing treatment. What Armstrong deftly and definitively showed in her book is that fundamentalism is a direct reaction to secular society and that the primary enemy for most fundamentalists is not the far-away enemy of other people, but their coreligionists who have a more lax religious outlook. This last point comes up in “God’s Jewish Warriors,” in the form of Rabin-murderer Yigal Amir, when Amanpour points out that Amir was enraged by what he perceived as Rabin’s intolerable compromises and sell-outs. More context like this is needed to make sense of fundamentalists.

On the first point — the relationship between fundamentalists and secular society — “God’s Warriors” is less sympathetic than Armstrong’s book, and as a result less effective. In her book Armstrong narrates how, in the late 1960s, after quitting the nun-hood and leaving the nunnery, emerged to discover a culture that had changed profoundly in her absence. She describes attending a party, where the Beatles’ “I want to hold your hand” was blaring while young people danced, drank and kissed. She writes (ReligionWriter is paraphrasing): “Here these singers were screaming out an emotion that I could barely articulate to myself, let along announce to a crowd of people.”

Armstrong helps us understand that for many people in America and around the world, secular society is experienced as a visceral assault to the senses, not to mention a direct challenge to deeply held values.

“God’s Warriors” rightly identifies an opposition to secular culture as the force that motivates fundamentalists, extremists and even run-of-the-mill religious folks in various traditions to press for social and political change. What the series fails to do is help us sympathize with this outlook. Even the most secular parents are probably unhappy that their son is addicted to violent video games, or that their daughter’s friends are losing their virginity in junior high.

So what makes some people turn to violence or extremism to solve those problems? That important question remains unanswered.

The Good Parts, and Why We Want More from Amanpour

Where the series shines brightest, ReligionWriter felt, was in telling individual stories. Ed Hussein’s journey out of radicalism is fascinating, as is the story of the Palestinian family whose son became a suicide bomber, as is the story of the American homeschooling family with five children.

One of the most interesting segments, part of “God’s Christian Warriors,” deals with the evangelist Ron Luce and his teen ministries, including BattleCry and Teen Mania. Luce talks heatedly to Amanpour about “virtue terrorists” who are “raping” teenage America in the streets, and he insists that if his message of “purity” is “divisive,” well, don’t blame him: “Jesus’ message was divisive.”

This segment comes alive in part because Amanpour steps out of her objective and sometimes deliberately wide-eyed reporting style to challenge Luce. When they are discussing Luce’s live-in ministry program, where TV, pop music and R-rated movies are banned, and where girls must wear skirts of a certain length and boys can’t use the Internet unsupervised, Amanpour tells Luce this makes her think of repressive societies around the world (i.e. probably Iran.) When Luce justifies the female dress code on the basis that the boys will then not be distracted by the girls’ sexuality, Amanpour replies tartly that this is the same reasoning used by the Taliban.

Indeed, the viewer begins to want more critical interjections like this from Amanpour. It doesn’t seem right that this most senior of journalists, Iranian by birth and a veteran of numerous conflicts, should be asking anyone (in this case, Karen Armstrong, who is no Iran expert) to explain the basics of the Iranian Revolution. And when Dutch ex-Muslim activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali insists that women are being killed “right now” across Europe by their own repressive, religion-mad families, Amanpour offers skeptical “Really?” to this breathless, data-less assertion but presses no further.

Another rare and refreshing moment of Amanpour frankness comes when she interviews a former member of the Egyptian terrorist organization that assassinated President Anwar Sadat. As he ponderously explains that in Islamic law women have rights, but they can never be political leaders because they have other (i.e. domestic) responsibilities, Amanpour waves a devilish finger at the man, a sign that she feels his argument is not only stupid and wrong but obviously disproved by her very presence in front of him. (The man, resorting to his broken English, smiles abashedly and says, “You would angry from me now.”)

The Final Word

If you have six hours to spare next week, and you are hungry to understand the rise of fundamentalism in the monotheistic faiths today, ReligionWriter recommends you read the Armstrong book rather than watch the CNN series.

But if you have time, the best thing would be to both read the book and watch “God’s Warriors.” The two complement one another not in terms of ideas, but in terms of medium. The footage of “God’s Warriors,” collected over eight months of reporting, is fascinating and edifying to watch and makes a good complement to the more in-depth and contextual analysis of Armstrong’s book.

(All photos used with permission from CNN.)

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(Below: Sally Quinn, courtesy of wpni.com.)

Started by two leading journalists with little background in religion,‡ On Faith, the multi-contributor blog at Washington Post.Newsweek Interactive, has rocketed to prominence since it launched in November, 2006. Although washingtonpost.com said it does not have data on unique visitors to On Faith and its twin blog, PostGlobal, a similarly formatted “conversation” on global affairs, these two opinion sections together register the highest number of unique visitors after the home page, according to spring 2007 figures. Washingtonpost.com as a whole receives 8 million unique visitors a month.

On Faith moderators Jon Meacham, the managing editor of Newsweek and author of a recent book on the religion of the founding fathers, and Sally Quinn, a long-time Washington reporter, pose searching questions each week, such as “Is America a Christian Nation?” to which a star-studded panel of experts — and the general public- respond. One question posted in December — Why is atheism enjoying a certain vogue? - currently has more than 1,600 comments, the majority of which are long, detailed and thoughtful.

While some religion journalists have enthused about the site, others have questioned whether, as an aggregator of opinions, it serves any news function, and whether the interfaith atmosphere favors more liberal writers. ReligionWriter put these and other questions to Sally Quinn, who spoke about the niche On Faith fills, its planned expansion, and her own “freelance polytheism.”

‡Note: Jon Meacham is the author of the 2006 book, American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers and the Making of a Nation.

ReligionWriter: How did your recent interest in religion translate into the blog format of On Faith?

Sally Quinn: I did a piece for The Washington Post’s “Style” section about seven years ago about religion in Washington. I quoted one hostess saying, “Darling, no one ever talks about religion, it’s simply not done.” That piqued my interest: I realized there was an underground of religious people in Washington.

Then, of course, when Bush got into office and all this talk about evangelicals started, I realized religion had a huge impact on politics. I watched poor old [Howard] Dean and John Kerry flounder around in the South and the Midwest, trying to talk about their faith. They are Northerners, and Northerners don’t do that. It was clearly a problem. Then with 9/11 and the war in Iraq, the Sunnis versus the Shiites, the Muslims in Europe, it became clear that in foreign policy it was a big issue, and we couldn’t simply ignore it.

I decided to write a book about religion in Washington, so I started my own research. I felt we weren’t doing enough religion coverage in the Post at that time. Last summer I got the idea to do the website. I suggested it to Don Graham, and he said, “Why don’t you do it?” I said, “I don’t know anything about the internet, and I don’t know anything about religion (laughs.)” Nobody’s perfect.

As it turns out I’m moving away from the book idea. I’m taking all the stuff I would have put it in my book and putting it on the site instead.

RW: So On Faith was filling a gap inside the Beltway?

Quinn: Yes. In the old days, when you went to a dinner party, nobody would talk about going to the church or the synagogue. I’ve been shocked in last year to learn some of my friends actually go to church and synagogue. Not only that, a lot of my friends who are agnostic or atheists never admitted it. Now people are coming out and saying, “I’m an atheist.” People are much more willing to talk about it now, and I think that’s healthy.

My whole goal is to have an interfaith dialogue. People not only don’t understand each other’s religions – they don’t understand their own religions. The more you understand about another person’s faith, the more sympathetic you’ll be to them, it seems to me. You suddenly realize most religions are alike in a lot of ways, particularly in the basic tenets.

RW: I have a question for you from Jeff Weiss of the Dallas Morning News. He asks, why do you think On Faith has been so popular?

Quinn: First of all, we’ve got this amazing panel, there’s never been one like it before, with so many of the world’s leading theologians and scholars and thinkers. That’s been a big draw. Some of our panelists are rock stars in their own areas. I’m amazed – You can’t get them on the phone; they’re always doing interviews and speeches and writing books. They all have big followings, so their people who are interested read the website. A lot of schools and colleges and universities are beginning to use this as a resource, and in some cases using it as part of their curriculum.

Plus, I also think the questions are interesting. We’ve got these “guest voices.” We had a question about Mormons last week, and as a guest voice we had Bill Marriot, Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, and Martha Beck, who wrote a book called Leaving the Saints – those are interesting people who have really interesting things to say.

Sometimes panelists who have written books do a guest voice, and we link to their books. It’s better than doing a book review, because people can actually see what it is and read an excerpt of the book. Then we do a question around a book.

T.D. Jakes has a book coming out about repositioning your life. I’m doing a piece about him for the Post “Style” section, and he’s doing a guest voice, and we’ll link to an excerpt of his book. The question we’re asking to the panelists is: Are you satisfied with where you are in your life now? We’ve got guest voices from Bob Schieffer, George Stephanopoulos, Tim Russert and my very own husband, Ben Bradlee, who are all at different stages of their lives: George is in his 40s, Tim is in his 50s, Schieffer’s in his 70s, and Ben is 85. At Easter time, we had Tom Hanks’ wife, Rita Wilson, who’s Greek Orthodox, do a piece about Greek Easter, and how they celebrate it for a whole week.

People know when they go to On Faith they are going to learn something and be entertained and have something to think about.

RW: Jeff Weiss, always a provocative question-asker, also has this question: “Given that most of your bloggers are on the left, are you doing more than preaching to the choir? Are minds being changed?”

Quinn: We do have evangelicals and right wingers. People like Rick Warren and T.D. Jakes are not what you’d call liberals. We’ve had Billy Graham’s daughter as a guest voice, and we’re trying to get her, or Franklin, or Billy, to be on the panel. Sometimes it’s harder to get people who are more conservative.

We have Catholic theologians, but it’s hard for us to get people who are actually in the church. We’ve reached out to many different cardinals and priests who don’t want to do it because they are worried about what they might say, or what the church might say.

So we do have a problem: A lot of people we’ve reached out to just don’t want to do it. But we do have Cal Thomas and Richard Land and Michael Otterson – people with different opinions. I’ve had a number of panelists say to me, “I never would have thought of talking to this person, much less being sympathetic. Yet when I read what they write, I say, ‘I never thought of it that way.’” I wouldn’t say minds have been changed; I would say minds have been opened.

RW: How did you manage to assemble such an all-star panel?

Quinn: I started out with Karen Armstrong, who’s a friend and a mentor to me, and Martin Marty, who’s a friend, and Elaine Pagels. The three of them are so well regarded that when I called up people and said, “Here’s who I have,” everybody else said yes. The only turndowns we’ve had are from people who are reluctant to say what they really think, or think On Faith is not a safe place to say it. Bishop Tutu is a friend, so I got him. Then Jon Meacham reached out to people he knew like Rick Warren and Richard Land. I met Susan Thistlethwaite and T.D. Jakes at Aspen last year, and it went on like that.

RW: Even if the panelists don’t write every week, how can you maintain their involvement in the long term? Won’t they get burned out?

Quinn: Next week, we have a question on atheism, “Is religion man-made?” We will reach out to Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Susan Jacoby and ask them to contribute. Christopher Hitchens, who has a new book God Is Not Great, will do a guest voice, and we’ll link to an excerpt. Then we’ll have atheist and non-atheist guest voices.

RW: I have a question here from Gary Stern, who reports and blogs on religion for The Journal News. He says he finds the On Faith questions very general and asks, “Do you ever want your contributors to go deeper and get into the nuances of belief?”

Quinn: That’s an issue we talk about every week. If we ask questions that are more specific, we get fewer responses from panelists, even though we might get a lot of hits from readers. If the questions are really specific, panelists look at it and say, “This is not my area.” So we’re constantly trying to find balance between questions that anyone can answer – like “are you satisfied with life?” – and more specific questions. Recently we had one about whether Catholics are still being discriminated against, and we had very few answers.

I would like to make a personal request to all the religion bloggers out there: Give us your ideas. I love these questions you’re asking, they are all the right questions. We’ve only been up for five and a half months, and we’re constantly reassessing. I would love to hear from people.

RW: I know some religion journalists look at On Faith and say, “It’s just opinion. It can’t help me with my reporting.” How do you think journalists can benefit from On Faith?

Quinn: I work closely with Lisa Miller, the religion editor at Newsweek. We have four religion writers at the Post – they are really ramping up the team there. We want to create a whole religion section on washingtonpost.com, where we can have their religion stories, the news wires, and things from other people, so we’d have something like a religion magazine, and On Faith would be part of that.

But you’re right, there’s not a lot of active journalism. That’s why I want to get the religion people at the Post and pull it all together, because On Faith is not really a site for hands-on journalism.

We are getting to point where we’re starting special projects. We have one coming up with imams from all over the world, and I think that’s going to be a huge news maker. We’re partnering with Georgetown University. We’re going to do all the presidential candidates in the fall — have them actually come to Georgetown and talk about their faith — and we hope that will be news making. But we’re just growing. We’re trying to come up with new ideas. I’d love to hear from journalists about how we could make it more appealing to journalists.

RW: A visitor to On Faith could literally spend hours clicking through all the commentary. Is there a point when the amount of content just becomes too overwhelming?

Quinn: You don’t have to read everything. It’s like a daily newspaper: you can go through and find what you want. I’d rather have people say there’s too much than say it’s too thin.

RW: Though one reason some people stop subscribing to newspapers is they are simply depressed by how big the papers are, how much they can’t consume.

Quinn: We keep our guest voices to about 250 words, so they’re short. We’re also starting to do more video. We had one about St. Mary’s City in Southern Maryland, which was founded by Catholics who fled persecution in England. We have a video of a Catholic guy who became a paraplegic after a car accident while a college student at Notre Dame, and how his faith has sustained him. We have this Sufi rock star, Salman Ahmad, and we’re going use his music video, and we had a woman who did [Hindu devotional] carnatic music. We’re also going to do some videos of wounded soldiers and their faith at Walter Reed.

I’m going to start doing some video interviews – what Jon Meacham calls “The Sally Show.” Video is going to make it more lively and appealing to those who just want quick hits.

Keep in mind, we don’t have a staff yet. It’s our editor, our producer and me – it’s just the three of us to keep this thing going.

RW: Are you confident you’ll be able to get the resources you need?

Quinn: Yes, absolutely.

RW: What’s your day-to-day involvement with On Faith?

Quinn: It’s 24/seven. I’m not kidding. I’m at my computer starting at 8 o’clock in the morning, and I’m in and out, but I’m here at 11 o’clock at night. It’s totally full time.

RW: Do you worry about burnout?

Quinn: I’ve never been so excited about anything I’ve done in my entire life. I am absolutely consumed by this. I just took a three-week trip around the world to study the origins of the great faiths – we went everywhere, and I learned so much: seeing these people with all different kinds of faiths, and their devotions that are so different but so similar. I find it riveting; I just can’t get enough of it.

RW: The obvious question, then, is how this has affected your own beliefs.

Quinn: I was an atheist until a year ago and a half ago, I’ve written about that. Jon Meacham talked me out of that, saying, “Don’t define yourself negatively.” I wouldn’t call myself an agnostic, only because I think we’re all agnostics – none of us knows for sure.

There are pieces of each religion I find compelling. Many things I find a turnoff. I don’t like the doctrine or rigidity of some religions. I’m very much, “Live and let live; I’ll respect you, you respect me; and we’ll all live happily ever after.” I’m now writing about book about myself, how I got where I am, instead of the book about Washington.

I so hesitate to use the word spiritual, because it’s become such a tacky pop word, but I’m much more interested in spirituality than dogma. I don’t believe in a personal God, but I believe in the Spirit. What’s magic or sacred for me – the things that give me the most joy – are my family and my friends – I know it sounds so trite – and the work I’m doing now. If you do something you think is helping people, and I believe that’s what we’re trying to do, it can be incredibly satisfying. We all have to find out in our lives what gives us sustenance, and that’s what works for me.

RW: Karen Armstrong has described herself as a “freelance monotheist” and talks about her work as a religious pursuit in and of itself. Do you ever feel that way?

Quinn: I would say I’m more of a freelance polytheist (laughs.) There’s this beautiful goddess of compassion in Tibet, and I felt, “I can believe in that.”

Yes, there is an enormous amount of fulfillment in doing this work. As Karen talks about, what we are all searching for in our lives is the divine. Before this, I did my work, I tooled along, but I wasn’t really impassioned about anything. I didn’t feel the gratitude that I do now.

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