Byline: Robert McCoppin Daily Herald Staff Writer
In the beginning, God created religion and politics, and your parents told you to never discuss them in mixed company.
Now, strangers are quick to debate what they think of the presidential election or the war in Iraq. That leaves religion as the social leper: few people will volunteer how they feel about God.
Lee Strobel, 52, a successful author originally from Arlington Heights, is out to change that. He wants to drag religion out from the solemnity of churches into the noisy arena of public debate. To serve the sacred, he's employing that most profane modern invention: the television talk show.
"Faith Under Fire," which premiered this weekend on PAX-TV, is billed as the first show on network television to regularly fight out basic religious beliefs. It airs at 9 p.m. Saturdays on WCPX, Channel 38.
Hosted by Strobel, the show intends to stir up hot button issues like: Is the war in Iraq moral? Is God a Republican or a Democrat? Is God pro-choice?
Strobel hopes its controversial nature will attract even those who've already made up their minds, while being respectful enough not to drive them away.
"Most faith-based TV to me is boring," Strobel said. "What if we took the hottest issues and debated them from a spiritual perspective, and let the viewer decide what makes the most sense?"
Born again skeptic
Strobel's new role as the Jerry Springer of the spiritual world is part of a lifelong evolution.
He was raised a Christian, became an atheist and a newspaper reporter, but then went through a conversion that ultimately led to him becoming a best-selling Christian author.
Now, living in southern Orange County, Calif., he's trying to tap into the same interest in spiritual investigation. He's got his work cut out for him, especially since he's doing it on a television network that draws just half of one percent of households in the United States.
If he can get non-Christians to watch the show - and change anyone's beliefs - it may be a minor miracle. Already, skeptics are debating whether the show is a good idea - but Strobel's own experience tells him it's worthwhile.
Strobel remembers exactly where he was sitting in biology class at Prospect High School in 1966, when a teacher told students how scientists had created amino acids, the building blocks of life.
At the time, Strobel thought, "God's out of a job."
He remained a skeptic of religion as he grew up and became a newspaper reporter, and got a master's in the study of law at Yale.
After working as an award-winning legal editor at the Chicago Tribune, Strobel edited the Columbia Daily Tribune in Missouri, then became assistant managing editor of the Daily Herald.
When his wife, Leslie, impressed him with her conversion to Christianity, he began to investigate religious belief in the same way he did a news story.
As they say in the business, if your mother tells you she loves you - check it out.
So Strobel began talking to experts in science, religion and philosophy. Over two years, the more he looked into it, the closer he came to the conviction that God did indeed create the universe, and Jesus was his son.
He converted in 1981, and eventually gave up his newspaper career to become a teaching pastor at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington.
He began writing Christian books, three of which -"The Case for Christ," "The Case for Faith" and "The Case for Easter," have sold more than five million copies combined.
His newest book, "The Case for a Creator," debuted this spring among the top 30 best-selling books on The New York Times nonfiction list.
To build on his success, Strobel set his sights on bringing a Christian viewpoint to television.
This is your life
A couple of years ago, Jim Berger, the president of Rocket Pictures, who was impressed by Strobel's writings, called him to propose making a movie of his life.
Strobel didn't think that would be very interesting, but he proposed doing a show similar to "The O'Reilly Factor" or "The Chris Matthews Show," both high-intensity political debate shows.
He and Berger devised a pilot and tried to sell it to the television networks in Hollywood, but Strobel says they were told, "We can't do God. It's too controversial."
"One syndicator said, "We can't do this show, but if you do it right you'll be on the cover of Time magazine."
PAX-TV, the fledgling network that carries other Christian- themed shows, agreed to produce the series. Strobel taped 13 episodes, with speakers - including offbeat guests like musician Moby - appearing via satellite monitor.
The show is fast-paced and confrontational, with experts arguing about a subject for only 10 minutes or so before Strobel moves on to the next guests and topic.
One show featured Madonna's spiritual teacher debating the virtues of Kabbalah, a mystic faith related to Judaism; debates over vegetarianism and whether hell is real; and a surprisingly frank interview with Playboy founder Hugh Hefner.
"I think we have a good chance of attracting a large audience, because these are issues that go to the core of what people believe," Strobel said. "I think we're going to have a lot of people shouting back at their television, some in anger and some in support, because these are topics that make people's blood pressure go up."
Skeptics in the pews
Still, some skeptics think the show might spell trouble.
Taner Edis, an assistant professor of physics who has edited a new book, "Why Intelligent Design Fails," was asked to be a substitute guest on "Faith Under Fire," but couldn't do it for logistical reasons.
He hopes the show will interest viewers in alternative viewpoints, but says the quick-hit format will only scratch the surface of subjects that scientists spend a lifetime studying.
One such subject is intelligent design, which holds that the complexity of the universe shows it must have been designed by a creator, rather than natural forces.
"It certainly depends on how the show is done," he said. "Biologists have a legitimate worry that if this is debated, just entering the debate gives it enough legitimacy to make it sound like an alternative point of view. But it's a point of view which has no purchase to speak of in the scientific community."
Paul Kurtz, chairman of the Council for Secular Humanism, taped an upcoming episode of the show that he said "turned into a fairly boisterous discussion" over whether to write morality into law.
"The idea of the program is good, to have a confrontation between two points of view," he said. "I don't think religion is sufficiently debated or criticized. What disturbs me about the American media today is that for many people, any criticism of religion is considered illegitimate or in bad taste."
For his part, Strobel almost guarantees he will offend some people, with topics like gay rights and "Are Mormons Christian?" But he pledges to give all guests on his show a fair shot at explaining their beliefs.
With the success of "The Passion of the Christ" by Mel Gibson - whom Strobel interviewed for church broadcasts before ever doing his show - Strobel hopes the market for religious-based programming opens up.
"I don't really care what people believe, but why do they believe it?" Strobel said. "Does it make sense, can they defend it, what evidence supports it - that's what interests me."
Excerpts from "Faith Under Fire:"
Episode: Kabbalah Craze
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach: "Using Madonna as your principal spokesperson is an act of insanity! ... A religion that cannot say what is right and what is wrong is nothing but feel-good sentimentalism and it's a waste of time."
Lee Strobel: "Is that why your version of Kabbalah is so popular among Hollywood celebrities - they can feel good about doing something spiritual without having to do something about their morality or behavior? ...It sounds a little like superstition to me."
Rabbi Yehuda Berg teaches Kabbalah to Madonna: "If you follow the system of Kabbalah, we can fill the voids in our life ... We bring people closer to their spirituality, and closer to themselves."
Episode: Is Hell real?
Strobel: "Is Hell really just a ploy to keep us in line? ...How can a loving God torture people forever in Hell, just because they don't believe the right things about Jesus?"
Author Jerry Walls: "It's not that God is torturing us, but we're simply experiencing the inevitable misery and unhappiness when we reject the only happiness for which we were made."
Gary Amirault, founder of Tentmaker ministry: "I believe that all people will be restored to God through Jesus Christ ... If he doesn't save the world, he can't be the savior."
Strobel: "Does that mean Hitler is going to heaven?"
Amirault: "Absolutely. If you and I lived like Hitler under Catholicism, and were abused by Catholic priests as he was, you and I would probably have behaved similarly."
Strobel: "Come on ... give me a break!"
Episode: What would Jesus eat?
Attorney Wesley Smith: "Anybody who equates the Holocaust with cattle ranching is not qualified to preach morality to anybody."
Strobel: "That really seems over the top."
Bruce Friedrich, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals: "It's the same mentality of might makes right that allowed the Holocaust, that allows us to do these sorts of things to animals."
Interview with Hugh Hefner, founder of Playboy:
Strobel: "Do you believe that God exists?"
Hef: "I think that there are questions to which we do not have the answer, and we create those myths, and that becomes our religion ... It is man's attempt to explain the inexplicable."
Strobel: "Do you believe Jesus existed?"
Hef: "I don't think that he's any more the Son of God than we are."
Strobel: "Don't you have a disincentive to finding God, because most likely... (God) wouldn't be too pleased with the way you've lived your life?"
Hef: "I don't think that's true. I have been motivated from the very beginning toward a set of values that I think are superior to my parents - much more tolerant and loving."
Strobel: "One million teen pregnancies a year, 33,000 Americans a day get a sexually transmitted disease, rampant AIDS, 1 million children in fatherless homes, 1.5 million abortions, a high divorce rate - is that your legacy? Do you take any responsibility for that?"
Hefner: "The (cause of) evil in the world is not bigotry, war or murder. It is sex. You've convinced me."…