by Andrew M. Henry
[special thanks to my colleagues and fellow premiere-goers Derek Knox and Kate Soules for their contributions to this review]
Still riding the wave of his bestselling book Zealot and a few high-profile interviews, Reza Aslan continues to push the boundary of what it means to be a public scholar of religion with his new CNN Original Series “Believer.” Marketed as a “spiritual adventure that explores religions around the world,” the first episode of “Believer” plays like a cool and edgy documentary with Aslan strolling through the Indian city of Varanasi while chatting with his audience about karma, the caste system, and Hindu cremation rituals. The premiere certainly breaks the mold of yesteryear’s documentaries. “Believer” sports top-notch production quality, pacing, and editing, a testament to what a professional film crew can accomplish. Aslan shines as the host, resembling an energetic video blogger on YouTube rather than a stuffy academic.
For educators looking for something to show to their classes, though, I should say that the series will not likely address religious literacy in the traditional sense of providing basic information about Hinduism. Although vocabulary like “karma” and “moksha” do flash across the screen for the benefit of the audience, Aslan doesn’t slow the show’s pacing with fine-grained discussions about Hindu belief and practice, focusing instead on the injustices of the caste system and his internal struggle to understand it. The show rather aims to capture a visceral sense of life in Varanasi. The camera lingers on burning cremation pyres, garbage floating in the Ganges, and people sprawled out sleeping on the streets. Interviews with cremation workers expose the hard life of the Untouchables caste in India. The audience experiences Hindu ritual vicariously through Aslan as he sits at the feet of a guru, lights candles in various shrines, and distributes food at a local school.
This approach apparently was intentional. In an interview with Religion Dispatches, Aslan states that he wanted to create a series that was “experiential, not just informative.” Although he acknowledges the public’s profound religious illiteracy, he theorizes that we will overcome religious bigotry not by teaching “facts and figures” about the world’s religions but by experiencing them through personal relationships and direct exposure to their beliefs and practices. He reiterates this purpose in his interview on the Late Show with Seth Meyers, saying that he does not simply talk with these different religions but “joins them” and “immerses” himself into their communities. The premiere succeeds at this experiential approach on some level. The episode is gritty and provocative, and though the audience may not leave the screening with much basic knowledge about Hinduism, they certainly get a taste of life in this sacred city.
If Aslan aims to build empathy between different communities, though, I fear the series may do more to exoticize than empathize. Whether Aslan intends this or not, CNN seems bent on advertising the series via sensationalism. Watch the trailer on CNN’s YouTube channel, and you will see a near-naked guru rolling around on the ground, people thrashing about during what appears to be an exorcism, and Aslan quipping that one of these ritual specialists must be “getting messages from the gods or he’s batshit crazy…” The producers crafted the trailer to showcase the most titillating scenes rather than Aslan’s more tempered commentary that I saw in the premiere. As someone who researches ancient magic and demonology, I welcome exposing audiences to unfamiliar practices like exorcisms and ecstatic pronouncements. I enjoy the challenge in helping students comprehend beliefs and practices that they immediately label as “weird” or “bizarre.” However, I do this by explaining the theory and cultural context underlying these practices. CNN rather magnifies the weirdness to the point of voyeurism.
Aslan does not exoticize as CNN does, but he does not contextualize the elements most foreign to Western audiences, especially the caste system—the singular focus of the premiere. This failure to provide context leaves the audience with more opportunities to misunderstand what they are watching rather than to empathize with the subjects on the screen. This is especially evident during the most memorable part of the episode. In this scene, Aslan sits down with a group of Aghori, ascetic holy men who purposely defy traditional views of purity and impurity by engaging in social taboos such as consuming corpses or smearing excrement on their bodies. The camera lingers on Aslan, dressed in traditional saffron robes, as an eccentric guru compels him to bathe in the Ganges, rub the ashes of cremated bodies over his face, and sip alcohol from human skulls. The scene culminates in the guru entering some sort of ecstatic state, rolling on the ground, drinking his own urine while seemingly threatening Aslan with the excrement. Aslan and his camera crew scramble away, their expletives helpfully bleeped in post-production.
After the screening of the premiere at Boston University, Aslan assured the audience that the scene was not manufactured and that his own reactions to the guru were authentic. I don’t doubt this. What concerns me is how Western audiences will leave this premiere without any context to understand what they had just witnessed. Without a more comprehensive discussion about the history and function of the caste system in Hinduism and without a better understanding of Hindu notions of purity and taboo, this scene leaves audiences with a weird and silly impression of the Aghori. To his credit, Aslan counterbalances this guru by interviewing a less eccentric Aghori leader who transcends social taboos by serving lepers in Varanasi, but even this does not so much generate empathy and understanding as much as it constructs a narrative appealing to liberal Western audiences (i.e. a marginalized group flouting the traditionalist system of “mainstream” Hinduism). I don’t doubt Aslan’s sincerity (as much as I do CNN’s) in promoting empathy between religions, but his “experiential rather than informative” approach in this episode may serve to reinforce Western stereotypes about Hinduism rather than educate the public.
The premiere of “Believer” is thus a mixed bag. We certainly need more public programming like this. When scholars of religion publish only for their insular, academic communities, we abdicate the public’s education about religion to those who are less informed or to those wielding a partisan axe to grind. I applaud Reza Aslan’s efforts to bring religious studies programming to cable TV. However, I offer a word of caution. Any portrayal of religion for the public must maintain a balancing act between attracting the largest possible audience and providing accurate, tempered information about religion that will ultimately promote empathy and understanding. I am not yet convinced that “Believer” will strike this tone, but I encourage religious studies scholars everywhere to watch and engage with this series. We should not ignore such a high-profile opportunity.
Andrew M. Henry is a PhD candidate in the Department of Religion at Boston University. His research interests include magic and demonology in Late Antiquity, particularly the material culture of magical practice such as amulets, curse tablets, and apotropaic inscriptions. He is also the host of Religion For Breakfast, an educational YouTube channel committed to raising the quality of discussion about religion on YouTube.