When PBS puts the word out that it will be airing a four-hour documentary about what drives young people of various faiths to pursue ministry as a profession, a WORLD entertainment reporter is going to sit up and take notice. When the network titles it The Calling and describes it as an examination of would-be clergy struggling to "uphold timeless truths in an era that values quick fixes and hot trends, and face a public that challenges the very relevance of their mission," well, that's practically must-see TV.
Yet while the special, which airs December 20 and 21 at 9 p.m., is fascinating in a National Geographic, cultural spectator sort of way, it offers very little exploration of the concept of calling or how it relates to different religious doctrines.
The first two hours develop slowly, introducing us to a seminary student at Azusa Pacific, a married rabbi leading his first congregation, a single mom who's just been ordained in the African Methodist Episcopal church, and two Muslim chaplains. As we follow them through their ministerial responsibilities, we get to know the milestones and trials inherent to their unique career paths.
A recent graduate of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, Yerachmiel Shapiro, worries that his plan to be the primary caregiver for his and his wife's new baby will offend orthodox congregants. As a single Muslim woman, Tahera Ahmed clashes with some of her male classmates. Black Muslim Bilal Ansari feels discriminated against in his work ministering to prisoners and wonders whether he should pursue legal action.
Religion, of course, plays a role in their goals and their obstacles, but it's not so different from what young people pursuing any profession might experience. And when the opportunity to focus more deeply on faith and calling presents itself, such as when Ahmed simply drops out of the film after getting married, series director Daniel Alpert squanders it. Did Ahmed's new husband take issue with her work? Did some new understanding of Islamic teaching prompt her to withdraw from the project? Alpert either didn't investigate or decided that the material was too hot for a documentary that avoids anything that might smack of judgment.
The second half picks up considerably, thanks to the addition of two young men who display the passion and purpose their co-stars seem to lack. Newly ordained priest Steven Gamez from San Antonio, Texas, and rabbinical student and political activist Shmuly Yanklowitz from New York couldn't be more different in style, yet they are the only two who appear to possess the clarity of calling.
Father Gamez frankly discusses the challenge of celibacy ("I love women," he tells friends, "but I love God more") and his determination to rehabilitate a Catholic church rocked by sexual scandal. Yanklowitz, who positively crackles with energy, encourages orthodox undergrads to apply the tenets of Jewish law to social issues. Could Jesus be considered a Jewish leader? he asks them. But these are the only moments that get to the heart of the subject.
Alpert's greatest sin of omission is in failing to draw a line from doctrine to behavior. Do the teachings of Islam cause a Muslim chaplain to pursue calling differently than a rabbi or a priest? What do they each hope to accomplish in their ministerial roles, and are those goals different as a result of their beliefs? Asking these questions would have gone a long way toward cutting through the ho-hum ecumenical mire to something solid and contrasting, which is perhaps why Alpert never asks.
In a Dec. 3 column for Jewish Week, Rabbi Yanklowitz writes of his participation in the film, "The language of 'calling' feels to me more Christian than Jewish since I think of a Jewish calling as more autonomous and internally cultivated with struggle rather than an external idyllic voice."
What an intriguing comment-both in how it differentiates the Jewish concept of calling and how it may (or may not) misinterpret what Christians mean when they use the word. Clearly the rabbi is willing and able to articulate his thoughts on this thorny but important topic. What a shame PBS never lets him do so.