MTV’s True Life: I’m in an Interfaith Relationship

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MTV gets a lot of flak for its socially irresponsible reality series like “The Hills,” “The Real World,” “Laguna Beach” and whatever name the Real World-Road Rules Challenge goes by these days.

But quietly, MTV also produces some of the most thoughtful, balanced documentaries on issues facing young people. One series that is usually quite good is called “True Life.” Each half-hour episode of “True Life” focuses on two or three subjects who are all grappling with a difficult issue: coming out, eating disorders, mental illness, internet addiction–if there’s a problem teenagers and 20-somethings have in this country, “True Life” has covered it. Last night’s episode focuses on two young married couples in interfaith relationships.

One couple was Ira and Sasha, who live in Longwood, Fla. Ira is a non-observant, although somewhat knowledgeable, Jew, and Sasha is a devout Christian whose church celebrates the Jewish holidays. The other couple was Travis and Jasmin, who live in Hollywood, Fla. Travis is a non-practicing Lutheran, and Jasmin is a very spiritual woman who is strongly leaning to becoming a Jehovah’s Witness. Sasha is pregnant while Jasmin has two children, so both couples are dealing not only with interfaith issues with their partners, but also grappling with how to teach religion to their children.

True to form, “True Life” gives an honest, sometimes painful look into the two couple’s lives. Ira wants to raise the child Jewish, but Sasha chides Ira for not being religious himself; during Yom Kippur, she’s more interested in fasting than he is. When the interviewer asks them how they would handle the issue of Jesus with their future child, Ira says, “I would tell him I don’t believe Jesus was the messiah based on my reading of the Bible.” Sasha retorts, “I would tell him to read it again.” In the other couple, Jasmin attends services at a non-denominational church in an attempt to learn more about Travis’ religion, while Travis says of Jehovah’s Witnesses, “I hate those people.” In both cases, the woman is the more religious partner in the couple.

I wish I could say that each couple comes to a mature, well-thought-out decision over how to raise their children, but I can’t. I don’t know which is worse, Travis and Jasmin, who admit that they’ve made no decision, or Ira and Sasha, who’ve made a decision–and their decision is to invent a new religion called “Jewstian.” Travis and Jasmin sound like they’re going to teach their children conflicting religious narratives, while Ira and Sasha say they’re going to look for a place where the child can participate in Jewish rituals but still believe in Jesus. Unsurprisingly, the epilogue notes that Ira and Sasha are unable to find a church that will accomodate them. Neither couple realizes one of the unfortunate truths about teaching religion to your children: you have to make a choice, and that choice will inevitably favor one parent’s religion.

The show casts in bold relief the dangers posed by doing “both” or not making a religious decision at all. Both Travis and Jasmin say that when asked about religion by their children, they’ll teach them that their own religion is the truth. In essence, they plan to compete for their children’s hearts, a recipe for religious confusion, if not divorce.

Ira and Sasha’s solution sounds better on paper, a compromise, but it’s both unworkable and dishonest. Religion is too complicated and sophisticated a matter to assume that any two people can invent a religion that their children will find persuasive. Moreover, the community of worship is one of the essential elements of religious affiliation and feeling; Ira and Sasha want their child to be a religious community of one.

Ira is also delusional if he thinks that his child can be raised Jewish and believe in Jesus. Once he accepts Jesus, he is a Christian, regardless of whether he fasts on Yom Kippur and lights the menorah on Hanukkah or not. There’s nothing wrong with the couple making the choice to raise their child Christian, but they should be honest about it. Further, even if they can successfully raise their child in their hybrid religion, the likelihood that he will identify as Jewish as an adult–or that his children will identify as Jewish–is poor.

Sometimes the truth hurts.

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