Imagine something like Anthony Bourdain's show "Parts Unknown." Now replace Bourdain with religious scholar Reza Aslan and instead of a look at food culture, picture a glimpse of various sects, cults, rites and rituals around the globe and you have CNN's "Believer With Reza Aslan."
The six-episode "spiritual adventures series," premiering Sunday, focuses on groups misunderstood by majority religions; the Hindu are disgusted with the ghoulish Aghori sect in India; evangelical missionaries have labeled Haiti's Vodou faith as demonic; and then there's the Hawaiian doomsday cult led by a man named JeZus.
But "Believer" doesn't offer as much enlightenment as its title and premise might suggest. The main problem here is that some of the chosen believers in the first few episodes are ultimately unbelievable.
Many of the groups and leaders featured here are so fringe that their bizarre philosophies and theatrics distract from Aslan's main mission — to demystify lesser understood faiths and find a commonality that makes us all believers in something.
The Aghori are an ascetic sect of Hinduism that rejects the caste system (good), but challenges widely held ideas about purity with post-mortem rituals such as eating human flesh (bad).
As with each episode, Aslan tries to embed with his chosen subjects and practice as they do. But in Varanasi, it leads to hanging out with three random Aghoris camped by the Ganges River who get Aslan to smear his body with the ashes of human remains and possibly even eat brain matter. He draws the line when the guru asks him to consume something else too gross to mention, and then flings it at Aslan when he refuses.
The research and scene-setting — in this installment, where Aslan explains the caste system, its relation to the Hindu religion and interviews scholars and people on the street — is when the show is at its best. But when it leads to him hanging out in a meditation den, lit like a rave, with an attention-seeking guru who drinks honey out of human skulls, the journey is more about sensationalism than true discovery.
In Hawaii, the Rainbow Village doomsday cult is building an ark in the middle of the jungle in anticipation of the apocalypse.
Again, the setup gives seemingly pertinent background on other doomsday cults and their leaders, including Jim Jones, David Koresh and Heaven's Gate. But the group the show chooses to embed with appears more like a loose-knit hippie commune than anything else. Self-proclaimed prophet JeZus doesn't even seem all that sure of why 40 or more people have chosen to live with him in the jungle and invest in a vision that isn't much of a vision at all: Stick with him and you might survive the coming floods and destruction. Even JeZus admits his theatrical displays – rants, flailing arms, word-salad revelations – are oftentimes a front: "If you can survive my narcissism, you can pass the test," he says.
Haiti is where the show finds its footing. Aslan breaks down the history of the Vodou religion, how it arrived with African slaves and how it mixed with the Catholic iconography of slave traders and masters. He embeds with Vodou priests and priestesses, and scenes shot during their rituals capture a deeply genuine sense of devotion and enlightenment.
"Believer" shows the tension between a fairly new evangelical movement in Haiti and the island's centuries-old Vodou beliefs, and how that conflict replicates some of the oppressive aspects of the island during its dark slavery years.
Aslan, a SoCal-based professor, became a name beyond the academic set when he published his 2013 bestseller "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth." It outraged some in conservative Christian circles because they felt a Muslim author had no place writing about Jesus.
As a host, Aslan is charismatic. But in order to make "Believer" more believable, the show needs to stop trying to shock and, like Bourdain does with his series, find the extraordinary in the most ordinary of people and moments.