I’ve just finished what is commonly called a “Netflix binge,” which means I watched an entire series of shows. The Story of God had a two-season tenure with some nine episodes in all. I was surprised to enjoy it. I had expected something like the kind of show I saw several years ago during the height of the “historical Jesus” interest. I still remember the superior attitude of the narrator and his remark at the conclusion: “As near as anyone can tell, Jesus of Nazareth was an itinerant preacher, the son of a Judean stone-cutter,” followed by a smile of benevolent tolerance: “If he was more than that for some, well, that’s a matter of faith.” The condescension was profoundly offensive.
Narrated by Morgan Freeman, each episode of The Story of God dealt with a theological/philosophical topic: the problem of suffering, life after death, heaven and hell, good and evil, and so on. Freeman visits various faiths for explications of these topics by traveling to locations associated with those faiths: Egypt, Israel, New Orleans, Rome, India, New York, Mecca, Africa, Australia, as well as his native Mississippi. He is respectful and interested, and expresses his own opinion from time to time. No particular faith is dealt with at any length, only insofar as the topic addressed for that episode. For what it is, it is very well done.
As democratic as the series is, it nevertheless provides an overarching thesis, overtly stated intermittently and conclusively: Our differences do not divide us but unite us. It was definitely “global fare,” and likely very gratifying for those who don’t align themselves with any religion but claim to be “spiritual.” His last episode was an interview with a woman who had an after-death experience and described it as “pure love”; she acknowledged no religious affiliation. Freeman agreed with her statement that God is simply love.
I enjoyed it, and found (almost) nothing arguable in the entire series. Except for that conclusive thesis. It’s all the same, it’s all love, and that’s all that matters anyhow. As consoling as that sounds, it’s a little problematic. Not because I believe there’s only one true faith, but because of something else: If there is no sin, there is no mercy, no forgiveness, and if there’s no chosen faith, there is no feeling of belonging to a community where your own beliefs are shared by others—i.e., no culture, and ultimately no real community. The thesis is an articulation of John Lennon’s famous “Imagine” reality: no country, no religion, no heaven, no hell, etc., just people living in peace together. The idea that people would live together in peace if we just eradicated religions and countries is a fantasy. People who seek differences as a cause for war and violence will only find other differences to justify their actions. It’s the illogic that says we can eliminate racism by eliminating races, or we can eliminate sexism by eliminating the sexes. In other words, we can eliminate intolerance by eliminating those things that require tolerance—that is, anything or anyone different from us. We don’t have to tolerate difference if we just eliminate difference.
I am reminded of an incident in an undergrad literary survey course when a professor authoritatively pronounced, “So you see that there are no answers!” After a moment of silence, a student tentatively raised his hand: “Well, it doesn’t seem like there are no answers, sir. It seems like there are a whole lot of them. You just have to choose one. That’s the hard part. Kind of like choosing one girl when there are so many. But it turns out pretty quick that if you don’t choose one of them, you don’t get any of them.”