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Buffet of belief

Morgan Freeman (National Geographic Channel)

Matthew Paul Turner/National Geographic Channel

Sorondo and Freeman

Television

Buffet of belief

The Story of God tries to reconcile world religions by downplaying their differences 

The Story of God, National Geographic Channel’s latest series exploring faith, might better have been titled The Story of Gods. Throughout, the show’s host and executive producer, Oscar-winning actor Morgan Freeman, probes humankind’s deepest questions—“Where do we come from?” “What happens after we die?” “Who is God?”—by interviewing a hodgepodge of historians, archaeologists, and teachers of various world religions.

For biblically grounded Christians, the six-part series, premiering on April 3, will likely prove frustrating, never deeply delving into any of its subjects. In an episode on end times, for example, nebulous spiritualisms stand in for hard eschatology and suggest the apocalypse is “a state of mind and heart that helps us see the truth. It’s not some far-off day of judgment. It’s here, it’s now.”

But the series is instructive for those who want to understand better the challenges Christians face today in following Christ’s command to make disciples.

In the midst of Freeman’s brisk soul-searching from one sacred site to another, one element stands out for its absence—evangelism. This makes sense given the overall theme of the production: What significance can conversion have to a pluralistic worldview that says all spiritual paths are equally valid, that moving from one to the other is simply shifting your way of worshipping the same creator or life force?

Freeman’s open-armed response to all beliefs, without probing their unbridgeable contradictions, is perfectly representative of Westerners who see faith as a sort of buffet line in which one can choose whatever slice of dogma looks most appetizing. It also illustrates why, to share the good news that Jesus offers access to God, we must first start with the uncomfortable news that other religions do not.

The Bible, of course, explicitly rejects postmodern, god-is-individual-to-each-person ideology. There is one way to God, and it is the narrow path of Christ on the cross. The Lord is our God. The Lord is one. And the Lord is no more the same as Allah or Krishna or Enlightened Energy today as He was the same as Baal or Molech 3,000 years ago.

It would have been fascinating to see how a serious, sola Scriptura theologian like John MacArthur or R.C. Sproul might have responded to Freeman’s open-ended questions. Or to Freeman’s frequent opining that more unites the world’s major religions than divides them, and that conflict between them results more from political beliefs than religious ones. However, the only representative of mainstream Protestantism he talks to is Joel Osteen.

When Freeman asks the Lakewood megachurch pastor what his message is for his congregation, Osteen sticks to the script that made him famous—an all-purpose, “positive” platform of tapping into the power of God within for self-interested, practical reasons. He says he doesn’t like to “go with a lot of doctrine.”

It’s a disappointing answer. But it also offers a challenge to Christian viewers to have better, more substantial answers prepared. Someone needs to tell Freeman that Christ promised not to bring unity to this world, but division. And that we cannot genuinely worship God except in truth, as found in His Word.

Faith to faith

ROME—It sounds like the start of an overly intellectual, NPR-style joke. 

“A Catholic bishop, a Hindu guru, and a Muslim council member meet with a group of American journalists in Rome. …”

I don’t have a good punch line. What I do have is a deeper understanding of the stumbling block Christ presents to a Western world eager to mitigate differences in religious beliefs.

“In this age, friction between religions is worrying everyone,” said National Geographic Channel executive producer Michael J. Miller prior to a small press screening of an episode from the network’s new series, The Story of God. “This is a time for everyone to understand other religions and embrace everything we have in common.”

The show is a dilettante’s lunch of religious philosophy, and so was the tour NatGeo took us on around the Eternal City, stopping off at the Vatican for a meeting with Monsignor Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, then on to the Mosque of Rome, one of the largest in Europe.

Answers to questions of theology tended toward upbeat generalities. When I asked mosque spokesman Omar Camilletti about Muslims beheading Middle Easterners who convert to Christianity, he said such extremists are mistaken in their reading of the Quran. He suggested “optimism” as an answer to ending religious bloodshed. He also pointed out that Jesus is a part of Islamic beliefs, though as a prophet, not as the Son of God.

At a Hindu temple on the outskirts of Rome, Yogi Krishna Nath explained that many in his faith see Jesus as a guru, and that Jesus can be incorporated into their worship in this light. At the Great Synagogue of Rome, our guide pointed out, “Jews have managed 22 centuries of presence in a place known as the Christian City.” Many Jews, she explained, view Christ as an important historical figure and rabbinical teacher.

As The Story of God illustrates, most major religions share concerns that can be a starting point to dialogue. But that commonality ends in the same place it did with Peter, when Jesus asked him, “Who do men say that I am?” —M.B.

Listen to Megan Basham’s commentary on The Story of God on The World and Everything in It.

Comments

  • HayneC
    Posted: Thu, 04/21/2016 02:26 pm

    It is important to understand other religions while doing missionary work. It allows comparisons and allows you to show how Christianity should supercede previous understandings. Without that kind of knowledge and respect, your work will be much harder.

  • Bob R
    Posted: Thu, 04/21/2016 02:26 pm

    The "buffet line" faith is really nothing new; its what the Bible refers to as "idolatry", determining for ourselves what we want our "god" to be like, fashioning an "image" of it, (albeit in our own minds), then worshiping it as our own personal creation.  Our culture appears to be running headlong with its fingers in its collective ears, into a new age of the Judges, a time when everyone did what was "right" in their own eyes.  Short of a national revival, its difficult to see how we avoid the same consequences experienced by the nation of Israel.

  • Laneygirl
    Posted: Thu, 04/21/2016 02:26 pm

    The "positive message" church without "a lot of doctrine" is bursting at the seams. Talk about Itching Ears! They were the perfect representative for "Christian" in what sounds like a pluralist's delight. Who watches shows about religion on History Channel, NatGeo, or even CNN anyway? That's like going to the Cartoon Network for the weather.

  • Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Thu, 04/21/2016 02:26 pm

    It sounds like this program sought not to offend anyone.  This is a step forward from programs that seek not to offend anyone except Christians.

  • Midwest preacher
    Posted: Thu, 04/21/2016 02:26 pm

    Interesting.  I would say that nothing separates us more than religion.  Some believe you should love your neighbor and others believe you should cook and eat your neighbor.  On another such show recently the thought was put forward that we don't believe what we want we believe what we need to and that may be true in part.  If your lifestyle is immoral you need to believe there is no God or that He is completely non-demanding.