Faith, hope and CBC

Ann Johnston November 13 1978

Faith, hope and CBC

Ann Johnston November 13 1978

Faith, hope and CBC

It’s enough to reduce Oral Roberts to tears: the only prime-time religious broadcast on North American television, now in its 12th season, with a weekly audience of one million—and the host doesn’t even go to church. Roy Bonisteel knows there’s a great deal that Oral Roberts would find baffling about CBC’s Man Alive. “We’re in direct contrast to the kind of broadcasting the evangelists subscribe to,” he says. “They want a clear-cut, simplified, ‘telling me what to do so I can accept God and carry him around in my hip pocket for the rest of time.’ We don’t do that. We challenge you, we put doubts in your mind, and we don’t give you pat answers.”

Ironically, and perhaps predictably, the quality which separates Man Alive from the mainstream of religious broadcasting is at the same time the key to the show’s phenomenal success: a unique disinterest in the business of selling God.

Just one week into this fall’s season, Bonisteel proved true to his word. Dur-

ing an interview with Quebec Liberal leader Claude Ryan, Bonisteel asked if Ryan had been “guided by the hand of God” in his decision to run for the leadership. When Ryan replied that indeed he had, religion resurfaced as a political issue in Quebec for the first time in years. For several weeks Ryan was the butt of considerable lampooning from members of the Parti Québécois, references to his “divine connection” proliferating in all forms of the media. If the incident had questionable consequences for Ryan, it certainly did no harm to Bonisteel’s popularity as mail flooded in congratulating him on the interview.

Bonisteel 101. It should be a requisite for first-year theology students: hair colored that snowy grey, exercise to broaden the shoulders, and, most crucial, larynx transplants for that voice with inflections potent enough to convert the heathen.

Bonisteel himself does not adhere to any religious denomination and, not surprisingly, has never been a fan of denominational programming. His first

exposure to religion on the air was as programming director for CKTB radio in St. Catharines, Ontario, where he encouraged local clergymen to abandon their usual re-heated versions of Sunday’s sermon and produce a series of popular one-minute spots. In 1965 he took on the United Church’s radio program Checkpoint—“strictly to make a dollar”—and contemporized the show with an ecumenical, current affairs approach. He went on to create several radio programs for the churches, including the outstanding broadcast Dateline. By the time he joined Man Alive for its inaugural season in 1967, he was national coordinator of radio programming for the United, Anglican, and Roman Catholic churches.

Created in the wake of Vatican II and in the heyday of the ecumenical movement, Man Alive was a novel and contemporary vehicle for CBC’s religious mandate. Bonisteel, who was signed on for only 13 weeks, recalls the overwhelming response the program received each time it dealt with a social issue—marriage, children, old age. “We turned from covering the church to challenging it,” he says. “I think as we challenged the church, we became more challenging to our audience.”

Eleven years later, Man Alive is as relevant and provocative as it promised to be in its youth. This fall Bonisteel and a Man Alive crew travelled to Italy to film the first public display in 45 years of the Holy Shroud of Turin, Christendom’s most venerated and mysterious relic, believed by many to be the burial garment of Jesus of Nazareth. Of the three million people who made the pilgrimage to the six-week exhibition, many were scientists who had come to tackle the mystery of the resurrection of Christ. Armed with a dazzling assortment of technological paraphernalia, they sought the permission of Anastasio Ballestrero, Archbishop of Turin, to collect data for experiments which would possibly solve the mysteries of the linen cloth: its age, its origin— and most important of all, the process by which the image of a crucified man was imprinted on the material.

According to Katherine Smalley, one of Man Alive's five producers, their coverage, co-produced with the French network of the CBC, is the only full documentary made of the event. Capturing the electric quality of the pilgrimage and exposing the back-room politics of the confrontation of the church and the

scientists, The Shroud of Turin, (CBC Monday, Nov. 13, 10:30 p.m.) questions the worship of relics in the 20th century and challenges the position of science as the one true arbiter of faith.

Not all people respond favorably to Man Alive’s brand of religion. There are those who find Bonisteel preachy and self-righteous. Particularly antagonistic are the fundamentalist Christians

who find the program fraudulent, calling the producers “pagan humanists.” Bonisteel is quick to point out that Man Alive is a religious program, not a Christian one. His own sense of religion is broad: “It is a faith in oneself, in one’s fellow man, a feeling that people generally want to do what is right, what is fair, what is honest, what is good. I believe that everyone has a religious dimension and I think that you can tap that religious dimension.”

Bonisteel, 48, still works on a contract basis and has refused the many offers of an office in the CBC’s Bay Street building. He likes it that way, avoiding the politics and enjoying the freedom to spend time on his farm, 50 acres near Trenton in eastern Ontario where he grew up. Separated from his wife, Donna, he sees a lot of his three children, all now living on their own. As he speaks of their visits and about his neighbors, many of them childhood friends, his long jean-clad legs unfurl, his eyes soften, and there is a curious reverence to his voice. Rabbi, minister, priest, and psychiatrist—Bonisteel’s mail reveals that he is all these things and more to his viewers. “People see what they want to see,” he says with a shrug. “In fact, I’m just a broadcaster.” Ann Johnston

Ann Johnston