Jezus — not Jesus — fancies himself a prophet. He’s the leader of a doomsday cult in Hawaii, where its mostly male (and mostly naked) followers prep for the end of the world, building a giant ark that will save them come the apocalypse. On the day that religious scholar and best-selling author Reza Aslan meets him, a barefoot Jezus whirls Dervish-like on the floor of his canopied, open-walled hut, spinning around while feverishly flailing his arms, screaming to the sky, clearly on the brink of some catastrophic mental breakdown.
But on June 9, CNN dropped Aslan (the show was in production on season 2) after he tweeted about President Donald Trump’s response to the London terrorist stabbings on June 3. What will this mean for the show’s Emmy chances? A tough question, but will Emmy voters judge Aslan harshly, or will they, like Aslan’s passionate “Believer,” be open-minded about unfettered expression?
That Aslan throws himself into such situations so open-mindedly and without condescension is one of the hallmarks of “Believer,” which explores the day-to-day inner-workings of six different religious sects around the world, including a group of excommunicated Scientologists in Haifa, Israel, who still practice the core beliefs of the church; the Santa Muerte (“Saint Death”) community in Mexico; and goat-sacrificing voodoo followers in Haiti.
“We didn’t have a template for what we were doing,” says Aslan of the series. “We had no format, we had no paradigm. We knew that we wanted to do something that had never been attempted before. There were tons of shows in which a guy stands in front of some religious group and points at them and says, ‘Isn’t that interesting!’ And that wasn’t what we were going to do. Ours was about participation. We weren’t there to judge, but to take part and listen.”
“Believer,” says Aslan, is not aimed at exploitation, but at creating compassion and deeper understanding of both spirituality and religion.
That’s not to say it hasn’t escaped its share of criticism.
“My spiritually is far, far deeper than my religion, and I think that’s one of the points of the show, that faith and religion are different things,” he says. “Religion is how you define your faith. But faith is bigger and more expansive than religion. It’s why we call the show ‘Believer.’ We are interested in the things that people believe, not the institutions that formulate beliefs for them.”
Whether he’s sampling the brain of a human corpse or dunking in the Ganges River in India at the behest of the Aghori community — human cremains and microbes of fecal matter pooling around him — or dancing in the streets with the Na Nachs, a fringe sect within the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel that promotes happiness (and, by default, marijuana consumption) as a pathway to God, Aslan is fully immersed in every aspect of the experience.
There are gorgeously haunting moments in the series — “People ask me in which episode I had the deepest spiritual experience. I still have my Santa Muerte; I see her every day,” says Aslan — and there are times where things gets downright uncomfortable. In one such scene, an Aghori devotee, unclothed and smothered in human ashes, attempts to urinate on Aslan in a pronounced agitated state.
That episode is the one that audiences thought “funniest,” says Aslan. Aslan also knows that you can’t possibly create a show about world religions without stoking controversy and offending someone, somewhere.
“This is the kind of show that you are either love or you hate,” he says. “I’ve never met anyone who was lukewarm about this show. It’s like, this is either the best show I’ve ever seen, or this is an abomination — you should be burned alive.”