Holy Switch on ABC: Would you switch religions for two weeks?

Would you bow to a Hindu statue? Or attend a Muslim-run charity night for Syrian rebels? Would you participate in a Buddhist meditation session, or help clean a Jewish kitchen of leavened bread in preparation for Passover?

How much do you know of other religions? And how much do you think you know?

These are the questions producer and director Varcha Sidwell aims to address in a new 3-part series, Holy Switch starting this Sunday 12 May at 6.30pm on ABC Compass.

Sidwell revels in ‘fish out of water’ stories – from documenting the experience of three young Nigerian Catholic priests arriving in Tasmania to boost priest numbers in the state in the TV series The Mission (2010), to following five ordinary Australian women as they spent 33 days living the life of an enclosed Benedictine nun on ABC’s The Abbey (2007).

In her latest TV foray, Sidwell follows six young Australians, all with devout religious beliefs and entwined in their respective religious practices, as they swap lives for two week to experience a new faith, in a new family and in a different part of Australia.

It’s certainly an ambitious idea, seeking to explore the “big questions facing Australians of faith today”; to make participants question their beliefs as they observe the sincere, dedicated beliefs of others outside their own faith.

I hear you ask – what devout religious person would agree to ‘test their faith’ by exploring someone else’s religion? Good question.

The program had trouble finding participants willing and open enough to try this experience – particularly an Anglican. Kim from Launceston, Tasmania came in right at the last minute.

It’s certainly a brave person to volunteer for this show. But for Christians atleast, we are called to be more adventurous than other religions in this regard. We want to interact because we want to bring Christ to people of all nations. Nevertheless, the braveness comes from the possibility of judgment and condemnation from others in the participant’s religious communities from some of the activities they participate in during the switch. And perhaps braver still, putting their experience in the hands of TV editors who must find the conflict, where perhaps none exists.

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Holy Switch will premiere on ABC 1 6.30pm this Sunday, May 12.

In Sunday’s episode, Kim, an Anglican living in suburban Launceston, swaps lives with Aakash, a Sydney Hindu. Kim’s introduction to Aakash’s life starts with a boat ride along Sydney Harbour. Her destination: Aakash’s family’s private jetty along Sydney’s North Shore, beneath Aakash’s family’s giant North Shore mansion. That’s culture shock for most people right there. Add to it the beautiful colours of traditional Indian dress, the exotic smells of Indian vegan cooking, and Kim’s first day is overwhelmingly full of new experiences.

Switch to Aakash as he arrives at the home of Oscar and Sandra, Kim’s church friends who Aakash will be staying with in regional Launceston. Compared to the colour and light of Sydney Harbour and Indian culture, Launceston and Aakash’s new home looks normal, even boring, for most Australian viewers. It’ll certainly be different for Aakash, but there is no awe and wonder about where he is, nor does there seem much optimism about what he’s about to experience.

It’s a shame, given the subject’s potential to generate interesting discussion on interfaith dialogue, tolerance and multiculturalism in Australia, that the ABC has limited the series to half hour episodes. Taking in the introduction and presumably a couple of minutes ad break, each of the six participants’ experiences have been edited down to roughly 13 minutes. That’s not much time to explore an entire religion – and that’s assuming it’s even possible to capture the ‘essence’ of any religion in this format.

Is it possible in two weeks for Aakash to experience what it really means to be part of a loving Christian community? He’ll see a full immersion baptism, and take part in a Bible study, but so much of what is good about Christianity for an outsider is the love and relationships developed with people who are consistent about their beliefs and obviously attempt to live the way Jesus would have them live. It would be difficult for Kim’s family and friends to communicate anything but a surface, theoretical understanding of Christianity in just two weeks.

Plus, low-church Anglican Christianity doesn’t have much to recommend it to the camera – no statues, no ceremonial dancing, no glittering colours. For this viewer, Christianity in the first episode of Holy Switch, doesn’t come across with much to recommend it at all.

What inevitably happens when you try to condense any religion to a short television segment is you get more of the stereotypes and less of the truth. To be a fly on the wall in Aakash’s family as they watch the episode on Sunday night would be an interesting experience. As it would for any of the families and participants tuning in to see how they’ve been portrayed through the vigorous editing it takes to fit two weeks of filming into 13-14 minute segments. Perhaps none will be happy with the way their experience has been captured for the screen.

Keep that in mind when you watch on Sunday. Holy Switch will no doubt generate discussion on what you would have done in Kim’s place, or in the place of Anthony, the Maronite Catholic who’ll switch with a Buddhist monk in the second episode. Would you have agreed to be on the show at all, and if not, why?

Whatever you decide, the decision of these six young people to delve into a world so different than their own should be respected. It would be easy to look on from a distance and question their decisions.

But just maybe, it’s the reactions of viewers watching from the safety of their religious communities that will be the most telling part of this series in the end.

** Check out Eternity New Online next week for our interview with Kim from Launceston as she reflects on her Holy Switch experience.

Watch this clip from ABC about perspectives on the Hindu and Anglican faiths from Holy Switch participants, Kim and Aakash.