BURBANK, Calif. — Back in the late 1970s, when he was an investigative newspaper reporter covering legal affairs in Chicago, if someone had tried to tell Lee Strobel that one day he would be the slick host of a television talkfest about religion, he would have laughed. Hard.
Big fan of Jesus? You must be joking.
But God has a sense of humor.
Fast forward through 20 years, one conversion experience and two career changes to a nondescript television studio in suburban Los Angeles.
It’s midmorning, and the crew is hustling about the studio, making sure the satellite feeds are ready to go for the next segment of “Faith Under Fire,” Strobel’s new Hardball-meets-the-O’Reilly-Factor-style chat show about religion, faith and ethics that premieres this weekend on the PAX cable network.
Strobel, a former teaching pastor at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington and author of the best-selling book The Case for Christ, chronicling his 1981 conversion from atheism to Christianity, is seated behind the wood-toned “Faith Under Fire” anchor desk perusing his notes and practicing his introductory lines before the cameras start rolling.
“Do all roads lead to God?” Strobel says, searching, it would seem, for the appropriate inflection. “You’ve heard people say all religions teach basically the same thing, so it doesn’t matter what you believe. . . .
Third try’s the charm
“They’re all basically, they’re all going to get you to basically the same place in the end. But is that true? And how do you know? We want to put that to the test, so here’s . . . so meet . . . so meet Kenneth Bowers. . . . God. Let’s do that again,” Strobel says, displaying just a hint of frustration with himself.
He gives it another go and gets it on the third try. By the time taping has recommenced, Strobel’s intro for Bowers, a Chicago area member of the national governing body of the Baha’is of the United States who will debate Christian apologist Greg Koukl, is perfect.
About a half hour later, as Strobel, whose Teflon-pastor helmet hair has been replaced recently by a short, slightly spiked hipster do, introduces the next in a series of a dozen segments being taped for “Faith Under Fire.” On this particular day in late August, he’s in the zone. Like a pro.
“Does God recycle people through reincarnation, or do we live once, die and then are resurrected either to heaven or to hell?” Strobel says, looking squarely into the camera with just the right balance of enthusiasm and cynicism before introducing two scholars who will debate the merits of reincarnation vs. resurrection.
Strobel was a reporter for the Chicago Tribune from 1974 to 1981, and later was assistant managing editor of the Daily Herald before leaving for full-time ministry at Willow Creek in 1987. His journalistic roots have influenced the way he does “Faith Under Fire.”
The premise of the TV show is not to evangelize or prove its non-Christian guests wrong, explains Strobel, who left Willow Creek in 2000 and moved to Southern California to pursue writing full time.
“Anybody can believe anything they want. The question is, why do they believe it? Can they defend it? Does it make sense? Can they put it in the marketplace of ideas and let it be put to the test? That’s what we want to do,” he says.
It’s an idea that was too controversial for many secular broadcasters, apparently. Strobel shot the “Faith Under Fire” pilot in 2002, and he says it took two long years to find a taker.
“I had one of the biggest syndicators look at it, and he said, ‘You know, we can’t do God. But if you do this right, it’ll be the cover of Time magazine,’ ” Strobel recalls. PAX has picked up the show for an initial run of 13 one-hour episodes.
In the first episode, guests of various religious persuasions and none duke it out about whether Jesus actually rose from the dead, the moral pros and cons of assisted suicide, and whether God is a Democrat or a Republican.
From the relative shelter of a frenetic control room, I watched a fantastic smackdown unfold between theologian Tony Campolo, my personal favorite liberal evangelical Christian, and President Bush crony Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, over the morality of the war in Iraq.
Campolo is a self-described pacifist. Land is, well, not.
Lets audience decide
There was plenty of yelling (on both sides — Bill O’Reilly will be envious) and profuse sweating (on Campolo’s side — it’s practically his calling card). In the end, Campolo and Land didn’t agree. At all.
Strobel resisted the temptation to somehow tie the dueling Christian sides up in a neat bow. He let the acrimony and the arguments stand on their own and left it to the audience to make up its own mind.
Strobel expects the harshest criticism for “Faith Under Fire” will come not from TV critics but from fellow evangelical Christians who can’t comprehend why he’d give a forum to “unbelievers” and their points of view.
“Unfortunately, you know, Christians shoot their own,” Strobel says. (Really? I hadn’t noticed.) “I get the most criticism from Christians, and I think it’s misguided. People know where I stand. It’s improper and inappropriate for me to interject my cross-examination of every guest I disagree with.
“I just believe, in my own naive way, that in the marketplace of ideas, the Christian world view will emerge. That’s just my opinion,” he says. “We’ll let people decide for themselves whether that’s true.”