Season two of “The Story of God with Morgan Freeman” debuts Monday, Jan. 16, at 9 p.m. (8 p.m. Central) on the National Geographic Channel. Once again, I’ll be writing about it here each week from a Christian perspective as a preview. The first episode of the season deals with “The Chosen One.”
Given its topic — chosen people in various religions — I initially assumed that this first episode would deal with the central figures of various faiths. Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha. But it takes a different tack. Morgan Freeman travels the world, talking with people of different faiths who believe they have been specially chosen to provide leadership, inspiration, hope, wisdom or deliverance. He interviews a young boy who many believe is a reincarnated Buddhist teacher, observes remembrances of an Islamic martyr, encounters an Indonesian guru who takes faith to extremes and witnesses the adoration paid to an unlikely Sikh guru.
It’s a fascinating return, and I’m again appreciative for the program for introducing perspectives and cultures that I was previously unaware of. The imagery is some of the most surreal and colorful on television; watching it is a treat. Freeman is a great guide, interviewing his subjects not only with a kindness and humanity, but with what appears to be genuine interest and a healthy dose of skepticism. He’s not afraid to cock an eyebrow at an unbelievable story or ask a child guru if he really wouldn’t rather be on Facebook.
I won’t spoil what the Christian representation looks like in this episode, but it took me by surprise. Given the episode’s penchant to observe some of religion’s most extreme examples, I wondered if the show would look at people professing to be modern-day prophets or apostles. I wondered if, quite possibly, I’d be writing a defense of Christianity and a refutation of a televangelist, faith healer or prosperity teacher. Instead, the show focuses on a man who believed he was called to go to a dangerous country and preach the gospel. In his darkest moment, he recounts how he felt God’s presence by his side, promising hope and comfort. He makes no bold claims, although there’s a slight supernatural aspect to the story. He’s not loud; he could be a member at my church. His story is simply about going into danger because he felt called to do so, no matter the cost.
Most Christians will likely nod their head and appreciate the radical faith. But the truth is, Christians should believe there’s nothing radical about it. It’s expected behavior of all Christ-followers, every one of whom is believed to be a chosen one.
Chosen by God
The idea of being chosen by God is something many of us have been familiar with since Sunday School. In the first two books of the Bible, the stories of Noah, Abraham and Moses tell of men called directly by God for a special purpose in redemptive history. Throughout the Old Testament, God calls people to follow him, often radically, to accomplish his will. This continues into the New Testament. An angel tells May she’ll be the mother of the Messiah, and Paul commissioned to preach the gospel by a blinding light on the road to Damascus. These are dramatic, vivid stories we’ve grown up with, tales of heroes singled out by God for a task of eternal importance.
These stories are, rightfully, celebrated by Christians. But I wonder if sometimes we look at them and see God’s calling as something only for a select few. It’s for miracle workers on bold journeys, and God uses extravagant means to call them. Chosen ones appear to be accompanied by miraculous feat and wonders; they stand outside of the normal. They’re the saints and super Christians who work miracles and have tangible experiences with the supernatural. The rest of us are loved by God, but only because we came groveling.
The problem? That’s not what the Bible teaches.
We believe these miraculous callings happened. But the specifics are meant not to imply that God only uses overt methods to call people, but simply that God calls. He takes the initiative. Jesus called his disciples sometimes by showing them his supernatural knowledge, but also with a simple word. He didn’t wait for his disciples to come to him; he sought them out. And he didn’t seek wise heroes of the faith. He called ordinary men with no education, who would go on to doubt, deny and betray him before becoming the first leaders of a new religion. When called on the Damascus Road, Paul was imprisoning and murdering the very people he was suddenly called to love and minster to.
So the whole idea of a “chosen one” in Christianity is ultimately very true and yet ultimately very foreign to me. As a Protestant, I don’t pray to saints. While heroes of the faith are people I look up to and admire, I don’t believe their calling was any different than mine or that, in the eyes of God, there is a difference between them and me. I may be awed and humbled by their commitment in the face of my relatively low-key life, but I believe we’re all standing on the same level ground, chosen by God with the same grace.
Of course, the risk of realizing there’s no such thing as a “super saint” is that Christians can be lulled into complacency. We can easily come to think there’s nothing truly special, risky or epic about our faith and the journey we’re called to. We turn faith into just another part of our lives, similar to being a vegetarian or left-handed. We make it a personal, moral thing instead of the life-changing, world-saving mission the Bible tells Christians it is. Or we take its epic scope — which calls us to nothing less than telling others of an unbelievable hope, caring for creation, loving others and pushing back the effects of the Fall — and we turn it into something smaller. It’s a political cause. A social movement. A community group. The more we believe there’s nothing special about our calling, the more we’ll believe there’s nothing too special about Christianity.
And we miss the point.
It’s not that there’s nothing special about us. It’s that God chose to call every Christian to something special. Maybe if we realized that, we wouldn’t be so angry. We wouldn’t be so guilt-laden. We wouldn’t trade an epic, good mission for the smallness of petty politics, feel-good church and self-fulfillment theology. Maybe if more Christians stopped to meditate on the belief that the creator and sustainer of the universe loved them and called to their hearts, they’d realize the true excitement, joy and adventure they were called to. Maybe Christians would once again be known not as the party of Trump, but the people of Jesus. Maybe instead of divisive politics and self-righteous screeds, we’d be known as people of humility, awed at the grace shown in our calling, eager to tell others that the same God who called us was calling them, too. We’d be known as people of love, wanting to share the good news we’d been told with a world in need.
I think back to the pastor in this episode of “The Story of God.” I think of a man sitting in a North Korean prison, ready to die for his faith. I doubt he’d say he was a chosen one. I think he’d say he was just doing what Christians do. We’re all called, and sometimes that leads us to risk. Sometimes it leads us to something else. But if we follow the call, it leads to life. Ignoring it can rob us of that life.