“The Power of Miracles,” the latest episode of the National Geographic series “The Story of God,” is a useful program for Christians to watch – as long as they know at the outset what to expect and what not to expect.
Don’t expect host Morgan Freeman to actually define what a miracle is. Instead, the Academy Award-winning veteran actor takes viewers on a tour around the world to show how different religions view miracles and, indeed, whether they even truly exist. Christianity, of course, is dealt with, but only as one of many equally respectable belief systems. The show is more an exploration into the mind than the divine.
Also, there are no overt attacks on Christian faith healers. The program is utterly non-judgmental; different, often opposing, ideas are simply presented by the friendly, paternal Mr. Freeman and viewers are left to decide what is true and what is not. So don’t expect any actual answers – just questions and a few vague suggestions about the power of the mind and the interconnectedness of all humanity.
What viewers can expect in “The Power of Miracles” is a well-produced, polished tour through the world’s religions. While being visually captivating – as we have come to expect from National Geographic – the program is also very informative when it comes to different sets of beliefs. And there is plenty of value here for a Christian, because while we are called to speak the truth, we are best equipped to do that if we have at least a rudimentary understanding of how, and what, those around us believe.
Mr. Freeman promises to take viewers “on a journey to discover the power of miracles,” explaining that “believers think … miracles are proof of the divine.” (For Christians, though, miracles are not, strictly speaking, proof of the divine, but are examples of God’s sovereignty.)
The first example presented is the case of a window-washer in Manhattan whose scaffolding collapsed, dropping him 47 stories to an almost-certain death. But the man survived, waking from a coma three weeks later. He says the doctors told him he was a miracle, but when Mr. Freeman asks if he agrees, the man says, “I don’t know.”
This response seems incredible, considering the nature of the accident, but then Mr. Freeman makes a startling revelation: The man’s brother was also on that scaffolding, and when it dropped, he died on impact. So we are left with a bigger question here: If God saved the man, why didn’t He save his brother? That question, like many others in the episode, is left unanswered.
In a brief montage sequence, Mr. Freeman shows people praying at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, where the faithful believe the Virgin Mary appeared to a peasant 500 years ago, and Buddhist pilgrims flocking to the statue of Quan Yin in Hong Kong. He then goes to the Vatican, the epicenter of Roman Catholicism, where, Mr. Freeman says, “Miracles can turn ordinary people into saints.”
In Rome, Mr. Freeman meets with Msgr. Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, the chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, which is tasked with determining the veracity of a claimed miracle. This is an important job, because to become a saint according to the Vatican, a person either has to be martyred or has to have at least two miracles attributed to him or her after death.
As an example, Mr. Freeman points out that Pope John Paul II was declared a saint after two women claimed they prayed to him (after his death, of course) and were healed; one of Parkinson’s disease and the other of a brain aneurysm. The program does not explore these healings or make any comment as to their validity.
After a segment explaining the pre-Christian beliefs of the polytheistic Romans, in which nothing happened by chance and all human events were directed by an unpredictable group of divine beings, Mr. Freeman goes to Chinatown in Los Angeles to learn a bit about Taoism.
In Chinatown, a woman draws up Mr. Freeman’s life chart, which looks suspiciously like a typical astrological star chart. The final word on life, according to Mr. Freeman, is that what we may call divine intervention is just connections (we are all connected by the creative life force, or the Tao) that we weren’t aware of.
Next, the episode takes viewers to a hospital in Cairo, Egypt, that we’re told combines medicine and miracles. As Mr. Freeman hypothesizes: “The human mind could have the hidden power to unleash a miracle.”
This segment, it seems, is the show’s tip of the hat to Islam, albeit a cursory one. The ancient hospital contains a shrine in which the sick go to pray for healing.
“Medicine,” says one doctor, “was seen as the conduit of the will of God.” To which Mr. Freeman responds, or perhaps queries, “Everything that happens is the will of God.”
With about 15 minutes remaining in the episode, Mr. Freeman talks to a physician in Norton, Va., who professes to have been healed of a particularly aggressive form of lymphoma. The man attributes his miraculous healing to God, of course, and to his faith, his prayers and the prayers of his fellow church members. He adds, though, that God told him to go to a hospital, where he had chemotherapy treatment. The miracle, he says, was that his tumors literally melted and were completely gone within 48 hours.
“To me,” the man asserts, “that is a miracle.”
While Mr. Freeman refrains throughout the episode to say much about his own beliefs, it is when he next visits a Buddhist monk that he seems to be most in agreement with the person he’s interviewing. This is the segment that comes closest to actually trying to define what a miracle is, but the question is asked, and answered, by the monk, not by Mr. Freeman.
“What is a miracle?” says the monk. “I mean, flying in the sky? Is that a miracle?”
Mr. Freeman answers that we normally think of a miracle as “something that gives us proof of God.”
The monk responds with: “Where is God? The yogis say it is in here,” as he points to his chest. “Let’s stick to the real miracle, which is to transform the human mind.”
In perhaps the most telling line of the episode, at least the most revealing of Mr. Freeman’s own belief system, the host answers: “You solved the problem of miracles.”
All that’s left in the episode is for Mr. Freeman to wrap things up. And he does so in a somewhat contradictory fashion. He says “miracles can and do happen,” but he gives as examples people getting the breaks they always wanted, people inspiring one another, and people falling in love.
Ultimately, the message of the episode seems to be that miracles are more a matter of the mind than of actual divine intervention. Mr. Freeman’s closing quote is perhaps most telling:
“I believe we should believe in miracles, because miracles, however you define them, … they give us hope. They drive us to create reality out of possibility.”
The episode is extremely well-produced by Revelation Entertainment for the National Geographic Channel. At times visually stunning, the producers have spared no expense in sending host and narrator Morgan Freeman around the globe to interview true believers of various faiths. The program is careful to avoid criticism of any kind, leaving final conclusions and inferences in the hands of the viewer.
While the program purports to “discover the power of miracles,” it never actually delivers on that score. Instead, it ultimately seems to herald the power of the mind to define events as miracles. While it might be overreaching to describe the philosophical underpinnings of the program as insidious, the fact is that a casual, uncritical viewing of this program could very well shake a viewer’s Christian worldview. And for those outside the faith, the unanswered questions and the emphasis on the power of the mind could prove quite detrimental. The genial and friendly host, celebrated actor Morgan Freeman, does manage to instill his own viewpoint, but somewhat covertly. In his own words from a 2014 interview, Mr. Freeman said, “The highest power is the human mind. That’s where God came from, and my belief in God is my belief in myself.”
As for Mr. Freeman’s hopes for the series, he told CBS: “We’re hoping that the public at large gets the lesson of the sameness of the human condition. … We’re not as different as we might think we are, we’re all seeking the same thing and asking the same questions, and basically coming up with the same ideas about who we are, what we are, and where we are going.”
In a world where all belief systems are considered equally valid and only the close-minded disagree, Christians are faced with asserting some pretty unpopular ideas, the chief of which is that there really is such a thing as objective truth. We have the story of God: it’s the Bible and it includes a beginning (creation), middle (the fall through Adam and reconciliation through Christ), and an end (total destruction and a new heaven and a new earth). Believers are called dogmatic and backward for insisting that the God of the Bible truly is who He says He is, truly has done what He says He has done, and truly will do what he says He will do.
So, should a Christian watch this show? Yes, but with a caveat.
“The Power of Miracles” is not a program with which Christians who believe in the authority of Scripture will agree. At the same time, there is plenty to be gained by a critical viewing: the various belief systems explored can help Christians understand the differences between Christianity and other religions, Christians can get a little practice at critical thinking, and the show can provide a jumping-off point for valuable and important family discussions aimed at cementing believers’ faith in a world of philosophical shifting sand.
If you do watch the program, especially with children old enough to understand it (and that depends on your child, but it is not likely to hold the interest of anyone younger than a teenager, and it should be noted the show is rated TV-14), you should make a point to discuss it afterward. Maybe even DVR the program, so you can stop at various points and discuss how what you’ve heard and seen differs from what we as Christians understand as truth.
A casual viewing, frankly, could do more harm than good, because, while never attacking any set of beliefs directly, this is not a show that explores the power of actual miracles. Instead, it promotes the power of the mind to create and define them.