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Cheap shots at religious fish out of water


Freeman and Anthony from Holy SwitchOn paper this sounds like a great concept. Six young people from different religious backgrounds undergo a two-week immersion/swap with one of the other participants. They live in that person's home, adopt their style of cultural dress, interact with their family and peers and explore their religious practices.

This set-up promises both tension and inspiration; the awkward politeness of the fish-out-of-water scenario giving way to moments of conflict on the one hand, and enlightenment and growth on the other. The Compass special Holy Switch does offer these, but in truth barely scratches the surface of the intriguing premise.

The main problem is the running time. Each episode cuts back and forth between the experiences of two participants, so only half of the barely 30-minute running time is dedicated to each person. The impression is of a tantalising sketch that captures highs and lows of their experiences but not a sustained character 'arc'.

Sunday's episode saw a young Hindu man switch places with an Anglican evangelical. This fervent young woman Kim does undergo some growth; her initial sadness that good people will go to hell if they don't believe in Jesus is challenged by her confusion at sensing God's presence during a Hindu ceremony.

On the other hand, her Hindu counterpart is baffled by the unthinking platitudes and exclusivity insisted upon by Kim's Christian friends, and is rightly outraged when they earnestly imply that he is destined for hell. All this is ripe to be properly challenged and explored, but the running time and format doesn't allow for it.

This fact also lays bare the undermining simplicity of the series' format. There is a sense in that first episode that this was intended to set open and inclusive Eastern religion alongside narrow-minded, even arrogant, Western Christianity. That impression is reinforced in the second episode, due to screen this Sunday.

In it, a starchy Maronite Catholic trades places with an ebullient Buddhist monk (pictured). While Anthony the Maronite is dismissive of his hosts' beliefs, stubbornly resisting the immersion experience that is the whole point of the switch, Freeman the Buddhist finds meaning in the symbols and rituals of Catholicism.

Predictably, the third and final episode sees a young Jewish woman switch with a young Muslim woman. Both receive warm hospitality from their hosts, and while the episode barely skims the central conflicts that have divided these cultures, it implies that basic human interaction is the antidote to inter-cultural mistrust.

Jewish Jordane squirms her way through a pro-Palestine rally and wonders aloud whether she should be there. But it is touching at the end of the rally to see her new Muslim friends surround her and remind her that right relationships can and should transcend politics. This is the best episode, although again it is all over too soon.

The real test for the participants will surely come later, once they are again surrounded by their own friends and families who share their beliefs. How deeply have they absorbed the lessons of their holy switch? Hopefully a follow-up special is on the cards to explore this equally intriguing post-script to the immersion experience.

Tim Kroenert headshotTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street.

Episode two of Holy Switch will screen on Compass, on ABC1, this Sunday 19 May at 6.30pm. You can can catch up on Episode one on iView. 

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Compass, Holy Switch, interfaith dialogue, Buddhism, Hinduism, Catholicism



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Existing comments

Already told ABC that they went a long way to find those grim anglicans, sounds like they continued seeking "balance"

rose drake | 16 May 2013  

Good article and after watching the first episode I was a little dumbfounded at the attitude of the Tassie Anglicans... and yes the feeling that there was something not quite right with the storytelling but couldn't put my finger on it exactly. However, is a spoiler alert needed here Tim?

Val | 16 May 2013  

We were looking forward to the possibilities that this series could bring but were sadly disappointed. Not only were the comments about who would go to Hell by the young 'Christians' unfeeling but they were blatantly untrue. I thought that one of the main intended outcomes of our modern education system was to teach young people to think. This group were so narrow minded. I can only hope that Kim can change their perceptions by recounting her experiences of encountering God in the Hindu faith.

Phil van Brunschot | 16 May 2013  

Oh to see ourselves as others see us. Such pain when our arrogance is evident in exclusiveness, when our platitudes of peace are shown to be just that. AND what a joy to see the power of inclusive hospitality and grace.

Gary Bouma | 16 May 2013  

One wonders how the ABC went about the selection process for this program. The idea of using Jesus as a standover threat toward others is offensive to most Anglicans, as it should be to any Christians, yet here we have national TV presenting this as the sort of thing Anglicans promote, as though it were typical. Conservative Evangelicals of this kind are not interested in inter-religious dialogue and it was a poor choice by the ABC. All this sort of program does is reinforce the prejudices of those in our society who think Christians are narrow-minded and blind to the Syrophoenicians, Samaritans, Canaanites and other non-persons who don’t prescribe to their view of hell on earth. The ABC needs to lift its game. I would like to think that there is hope for Tasmanian Anglican Evangelicals too. If your opening gambit in a dialogue is to threaten the other person with damnation, there is not going to be much of a dialogue. One would have thought the Compass people knew that already.

PHILIP HARVEY | 16 May 2013  

As Marshall MacLuan pointed out, television is an inherently shallow medium - a hot medium where everything is presented on the surface, as opposed to the cool media such as radio or print. This is in the TV mode of infotainment where there is never time (nor the intention) to going to any depth. It's a pity that TV programs such as Compass or QandA seem to be seen as any kind of in-depth exploration of anything, especially religious matters. All they can hope to do is to provoke us to go deeper, through their sight-and-sound bites, into a much more time-consuming investigation of the questions they raise. Unfortunately, I think this rarely happens. They don't set up any kind of worthwhile forums for doing this. Twitter or Facebook are just as inadequate. What we are left with are annoying, simplistic impressions which only serve to reinforce stereotyped prejudices. Either the ABC should rethink its approach, or we should treat such programs as Compass from a wiser, more perceptive perspective which recognises their shallowness of approach. Such programs as this do little to foster real interfaith dialogue called for by Vatican II.

JO'D | 16 May 2013  

I think the reviewer and the commenters are presuming the same sort of maturity and depth they possess in the average televiewer, even an ABC viewer. Quite honestly, I think they are expecting a bit much. My gut feeling is that this series is a sort of "taster" for both participants and viewers. Real in depth religious encounter requires knowledge; maturity and depth. As a former High Church Anglican in the (hopefully) Michael Ramsey mould (I repeat hopefully as he had a real in depth understanding of Christianity which I think few share) I find the Conservative Evangelicals as epitomized by Sydney and fellow travellers of similar ilk a little hard to swallow. I wonder what would have happened if a young man or woman from Brisbane (described by a former local cleric as "Liberal Anglo-Catholic") had been substituted for Kim. Probably the parents and friends would have made much more tolerant and acceptable (to us) statements on other religions. But they may have been theologically and religiously vacuous. There's the rub. Can one be both religiously knowledgeable and tolerant without watering down the essential beliefs of Christianity (or whatever religion you belong to)? It would depend a lot on you; your spiritual maturity and ability to relate with people of differing faiths. People vary. Approaches to religion vary. Life is messy and the pieces often don't fit together as neatly as we'd like.

Edward F | 16 May 2013  

Great review Tim. While this is a promising concept, the lack of depth and time does not allow the viewer to really engage other than on a superficial level. The concept could have explored the challenges faced by each of the religions but rather just highlighted how disrespectful western religion is of their eastern brothers and sisters.

Nic | 17 May 2013  

How disappointing to watch Compass last Sunday night. What a terrible misinterpretation of the Gospel to tell the Hindu that because he was not a Christian he was damned. Christ's message was love thy neighbour as thyself and do as you would be done by. He never said anywhere you had to sign up to Christianity as far as I know. Signing up to Christianity doesn't "save" you. Living a life accordingly to his principles does in my book.

Mary Hoban | 17 May 2013  

The reaction of some Evangelicals brings to mind the words of Bishop Heber's 1819 hymn: From Greenland’s icy mountains, from India’s coral strand; Where Afric’s sunny fountains roll down their golden sand: From many an ancient river, from many a palmy plain, They call us to deliver their land from error’s chain. What though the spicy breezes blow soft o’er Ceylon’s isle; Though every prospect pleases, and only man is vile? In vain with lavish kindness the gifts of God are strown; The heathen in his blindness bows down to wood and stone. Reginald Heber, who was Bishop of Calcutta (which might then still have had jurisdiction over the Australian colonies then extant) was a very good man with excellent intentions who mirrored the ideas of his age. Europeans were shocked at such contemporary Hindu practices such as suttee http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/575795/suttee. Later missionaries, such as Stephen Neill and Leslie Newbiggin, not to say the likes of Bede Griffiths, had a different approach. Kim's circle (not Kim herself) recall to mind the now dormant Catholic phrase "the simple faithful". Sadly, much of that "simpleness" was ignorance and prejudice. Not Christlike simplicity. I repeat my contention that the likes of Tim K and Philip H (author & commenter of this article) are both extremely intelligent and religiously literate. Most pew warmers on Sunday are not. Some denominations and some discrete church establishments of various affiliation seem to encourage a rather ignorant approach to other faiths. Some clergy are not particularly well informed. I think what I would call the mainstream Churches (Anglican, Catholic, Lutheran, Uniting et sim) have a major task in engendering religio-spiritual literacy in their adherents and inculcating that sense of tolerance which debases neither "the other" or one's own belief. I regard this endeavour as a major and urgent task.

Edward F | 19 May 2013  

Tim Kroenert May 15, 2013 " a sense...that this was intended to set open and inclusive Eastern religion alongside narrow-minded, even arrogant, Western Christianity." If so, it was a very worthwhile intention. 'narrow-minded, even arrogant, Western Christianity' such as is all too often encountered is based on very flimsy evidence, and is really an insult to God. It is a very immature idea, usually confined to very young children, to think that "we", whoever we happen to be, are the centre of the universe, and that "our" way of seeing things is the ONLY right way, and that God has made "us" special, and others less special and even expendable. We are hopefully moving towards the realisation that God, as Perfect, is Constant and Universal. We are reluctant to realise that God, as infinitely wise and powerful, governs his Creation by Constant and Universal Laws. The reason for this reluctance is that such realisation would rule out our desire as 'the sheep'to be so extra special, and the 'shepherds' as being able to prevail on God to suspend or alter the constant and universal laws to bring about 'miraculous' outcomes and so illustrate our 'special' and exclusive status.

Robert Liddy | 21 May 2013  

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