Two new shows have their faults but entertainingly shed light on important questions about faith
A brief history of God — and of a young man in Buenos Aires called to serve him — took over Nat Geo last weekend in back-to-back premieres.
In “The Story of God,” host Morgan Freeman sets aside his tongue-in-cheek portrayals of a white-robed deity in Bruce Almighty and Evan Almighty to bring viewers on a more highbrow spiritual journey. “I have always been fascinated by God,” Freeman says in the trailer in his trademark voice. “We all ask ourselves this one fundamental question: Who is God?”
But viewers shouldn’t follow Freeman expecting an adequate (or even cursory) treatment of how the world’s great religions have answered that question. In fact, only two of the six episodes, “Creation” and “Who Is God?,” appear to tackle it head-on.
Instead, the series opens with an episode on the afterlife that’s more geared toward the social and cultural origins of religious belief and practice. Freeman traces belief in the afterlife to ancient Egyptian tombs inscribed with hieroglyphics, and visits Aztec temples, the Ganges River, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, all representing other manifestations of that basic belief — i.e., sacrifice, reincarnation and resurrection — down through history. He even looks to a physician for scientific evidence that the soul survives death, and meets with a pair of would-be gods busily trying to engineer their own immortality.
All of this is interesting (and couldn’t be more important), but what’s the point?
Our tour guide on this spiritual travelogue, who confesses to having many “different beliefs” represented in his library, brings a warm sense of bridge-building to his investigation. However badly needed in our political climate, this approach inevitably leads us to broad and shallow waters where only surface-level agreement results. “No matter what our faith,” Freeman declares in the conclusion, “we can all become eternal, like the stars.” It’s a fuzzy but ultimately empty sentiment that doesn’t resolve anything for anyone. Comparative religion, Chesterton quipped, is only comparative successful when drawing comparisons. So too with “The Story of God.”
Still, for its spirit of mutual respect and scattered moments of illumination, the show will be well worth watching. For example, later in the series, Freeman sits down with Archbishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, who argues for the complementarity of reason and faith vis-à-vis God’s creation of the world. In fact, Rome plays a kind of key role in the whole series — a curious thing, given that the National Geographic channel has also just released Rebel Pope, a new documentary on Pope Francis.
The hour-long special covers a lot of the same ground as other documentaries on Pope Francis but offers an added element of decently executed dramatizations bringing his story to life. Through the perspective of friends and biographers, the show takes us through Francis’ study of chemistry, to his call to the priesthood, to a period of social and political turmoil in Argentina, one that culminated for Bergoglio with the kidnapping and torture of two of his more revolutionary priests, Orlando Yorio and Franz Jalics, during the so-called “Dirty War.”
Rebel Pope is also not perfect. The show wants to imply (however subtly) that while the young Bergoglio was a Church authoritarian lecturing fellow Jesuits on the virtue of obedience, his experiences in Argentina during this period led him to renounce all that, transforming him into an open-minded revolutionary. But despite every attempt from the press and the media to box him in, to encounter the real Pope Francis is to encounter a man who, in all things, thinks and acts with the revolutionary wisdom of the Church.
But on balance, both shows are great fun to watch and shed needed light on the historical, social and institutional dimensions of faith that make its individual expression possible in the first place.