Cheryl F. Coon is the author of Books to Grow With: A Guide to the Best Children's Fiction for Everyday Issues and Tough Challenges. Cheryl lives with her husband and children in Portland, Ore.
what do you believe?: A Video That Helps Teens Clarify Their Religious Beliefs
what do you believe? --A Video That Helps Teens Clarify Their Religious Beliefs
By Cheryl F. Coon
Video Review: what do you believe? A documentary by Sarah Feinbloom. Produced by New Day Films, 2002. 50 minutes. Downloadable discussion guides at www.whatdoyoubelieve.org .
Few people would argue with the premise that teenagers today live in a diverse world whose religions and cultures are the basis of both hope and major conflict. We all can benefit from a better understanding of the major religions and their spiritual and philosophical underpinnings. Sarah Feinbloom's award-winning (named one of "The Ten Best Videos of 2003 for Young Adults" by the Young Adult Library Services Association ) and thought-provoking documentary, what do you believe ?, offers a timely message about multiculturalism in a medium that's likely to appeal to teenagers, the audience for whom it's intended.
Feinbloom has chosen six teens who are strikingly different in their religious faiths (Catholic, Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, Native American and Pagan), yet surprisingly similar in their candid discussion of their beliefs. Each of the teens speaks openly as he or she goes about daily life, choosing to focus on what's most important to him or her. There is no interviewer whose voice is heard and no standard set of questions. Thus, the Pagan teenager focuses particularly on how she feels like an outsider because of the many misperceptions people have of Paganism, while the Catholic teenager talks about the diminished importance of God in his life, despite his upbringing. He also talks wistfully about the role he hopes God will play in his life after he's through with the distractions of being a teenager.
Few of the interviewed teens talk about being observant or attending places of worship. Instead, most focus on whether they believe in God, the nature of their belief in God, and on how religion does or does not figure in their everyday lives. Although one can quarrel with the selection of religions (surprisingly, for example, a fundamentalist Christian teenager is not included), all of the teenagers are appealing and interesting people.
A perfect example is David, the Jewish teenager, who is not only an interfaith teen but also biracial. David's mother is Jewish; his father is African-American and Christian. David strongly identifies with Judaism; he celebrated his Bar Mitzvah; he wants to visit Israel; and he tells us that he feels most comfortable with his Jewish friends. Of all the teens interviewed, only David provides commentary on some basic aspects of his religion, such as keeping kosher. He tells us that he prays, but he isn't sure to what--simply that "it's a better way of getting things off my chest." He is deeply committed to his parents and his sister, and he tells us that he stopped believing in God when his sister tried to commit suicide and when he learned about the Holocaust. But he "hopes that he will believe in God" someday.
what do you believe? is described as appropriate for both high school and university students, but neither of my children, ages twelve and sixteen, who joined me in watching the video, thought it was likely to be of interest to college-age kids. All of us were frustrated by the fact that the video never provides a sense of the fundamentals of each religion. Instead, each religion is represented by a single teenager who may not be typical and who (with the exception of David) does not provide a description of the basic tenets of his faith.
Yet what do you believe? offers something important, perhaps more important and more difficult to obtain than any basic description. It gives us a portrait of modern youth, the spiritual questions that interest them and the answers they've reached so far. With the help of the online discussion questions (separately designed for families and for groups) what do you believe? offers families and youth groups an opportunity to talk about the differences among people, the values that cross cultural lines, and one's own beliefs. The online guides offer pre-viewing icebreaker activities for interfaith groups, an extensive vocabulary handout related to the practices of each religion, questions related to each individual teen portrayed, and questions to guide participants to a deeper understanding of their own beliefs.