Duking it out over matters of religion

The Hartford Courant

Would Jesus be a vegan? Are Christianity and Islam compatible? Is there any evidence of God? Does Hugh Hefner believe in miracles? Are Mormons Christians?

In a program that its creator describes as “O’Reilly meets religion,” Christians, Muslims, Jews, atheists and even animal-rights activists verbally duke it out over who is right about God and God’s intentions.

The new Pax TV show is “Faith Under Fire,” created by Lee Strobel. It debuts at 10 p.m. Saturday. In one segment, two religious scholars clash over whether hell exists. In a different segment, Madonna’s cabala teacher squares off against another rabbi, with Strobel acting as the referee. Strobel also discusses issues of faith one-on-one with such unlikely celebrities as Hefner and the musician Moby.

Strobel said he came up with the idea two years ago “for an O’Reilly- or ‘Hardball'-style” format devoted to questions of morality and spirituality.

He found few TV executives willing to take the chance on a show with possibly controversial religious debates. “We spent the last year trying to sell it in Hollywood. We tried the networks, cable television, syndication, Fox News, MSNBC and CNBC,” he said. “One executive told me it sounded interesting, but ‘We can’t do God.’ ”


Finally, Pax TV, which is expanding its programming this season, decided to take the show.

“No topic is off-limits,” said Strobel, who has produced 13 episodes. “We do abortion, gay rights, stem-cell research, all the hot-button issues.”

Once an investigative reporter and legal affairs editor at the Chicago Tribune, Strobel, 52, left journalism after 14 years and entered the ministry, becoming ordained in 1990. He served as assistant pastor of Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago and later at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Valley Community Church in Southern California.

Strobel has become a popular speaker in the field of Christian apologetics, an effort to provide scientific proof of the existence of God, the divinity of Jesus Christ and other tenets of the Christian faith. His most recent book, “The Case for a Creator: A Journalist Investigates Scientific Evidence That Points Toward God,” seeks to debunk Darwinism and evolutionary theory of the universe.

“The point [of the show] is to really look at the evidence and where it points,” Strobel said. “For example, Islam and Christianity can’t both be right -- they are either both wrong, or one of them is right. We wanted to talk to people about why they believe what they believe and examine what evidence they have for it.”

In his books, Strobel discusses his journey from atheist to Christian believer, which started when his wife became a born-again Christian.

“To me, the evidence of science points to an intelligent creator, and I’m willing to put that belief to the test in the marketplace of ideas,” he said. “We want to stimulate debate.... I think we will have a lot of people shouting back at their televisions.”

Strobel was a featured speaker recently at a national conference called “Truth for a New Generation” that drew about 2,000 people to Wallingford, Conn.

“Lee Strobel is one of the flagship speakers in Christian apologetics,” said Alex McFarland, president of Faith in Focus, which sponsored the conference. He called Strobel “a scholarly defender of the faith,” adding that apologetics was generating new interest among believers, seekers and skeptics as well as committed religious leaders.

“God does not expect us to take a leap in the dark,” McFarland said. “People are realizing the need to clarify the Bible and to learn how accurate the historical records are about Jesus Christ.”

In an interview at the Playboy Mansion with Hefner, who wears his trademark silk pajamas, Strobel gets Hefner to discuss his beliefs -- or lack of them.

“Religion is a myth.... It’s man’s attempt to explain the inexplicable,” says Hefner, who at one point adds that he “doesn’t believe in miracles, but it would be great if there were some.”

As host, Strobel often gets the last word in the closing moments of the segment. “You haven’t convinced me that Jesus was a vegetarian and that God doesn’t want us to eat meat,” he tells a Christian vegan and animal activist in the “What Would Jesus Eat?” episode.

Strobel said he urges his guests to forcefully argue their beliefs, to help others better learn about them. “I want to know from a Muslim why he believes the Koran is the word of God and why he thinks Muhammad was the final prophet,” he said. “To me, faith is a step you take in the same direction that the evidence is pointing.”


‘Faith Under Fire’

Where: PAX

When: 10 p.m. Saturday

Rating: The network has rated it TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)