In God's Name: Wisdom from the World's Great Spirit Leaders is one of the best religious documentaries I have seen in some time. Produced in association with the acclaimed French filmmakers, Jules and Gedeon Naudet, the film explores the most complex religious questions of our day. Twelve of the world's most influential religious leaders are interviewed and share their intimate thoughts about faith, life, terrorism and death. The way their story is put together flows wonderfully and is most satisfying. The voices here include all the major world religions; e.g. Buddhism, Islam (Sunni and Shi'ite), Shinto, Orthodox Jew, Hindu, Sikh and Christian (Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, Southern Baptist and Lutheran). Behind the production of the film is a book and even a training seminar called "A Course in Miracles." A number of related resources can be found by searching the Web under the title: "In God's Name."
In the introduction the Moslem Sunni leader, Muhammad Sayyed Tantawi, expresses something that tends to run like a thread throughout: "People of all faiths and homelands are divided into reasonable and unreasonable people. All that I wish and pray to God for is that the reasonable people would outnumber the fools."
French brothers Jules and Gedeon Naudet happened to be shooting a documentary about New York firefighters that became "9/11," a riveting CBS production, when the idea for this film occurred to them. This project was originally aired on CBS on December 23, 2007. The Naudet's goal was to explore religion through personal and engaging interviews with twelve spiritual leaders. They eventually spent one month working on each leader that they filmed. Knowing how this type of project works I would guess that they film six to ten hours with each person just to get the material they included in this 90 minute documentary. Included in the DVD is an added bonus of another 75 minutes of answers to very specific questions. This was also superb.
The filmmakers sought to find the commonality of different religions rather than to explore what motivates some to use faith to promote extremism. They did not seek to contrast the different religions in a negative way. Indeed, each of these leaders condemns extremism of all types.
Leaders featured, like Pope Benedict XVI and the Dalai Lama, grand ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah and Hindu leader Amma, chief rabbi of Israel Yona Metzger and Michihisa Kitashirakawa, high priest of the Shinto Grand Ise Shrine, all weigh in from different perspectives on the great riddles: What happens after death, the meaning of life, the fundamentals of their faith.
Many of the leaders discuss religion in the context of intolerance, terrorism and violence, with most echoing the pope–that religions "can never become vehicles of hatred." What is of particular interest to me is the treatment of the philosophical issues in the different religions. One reviewer notes: "Even through the veil of translation the leaders exude their own kind of charisma–from the Dalai Lama's playful smile to the archbishop of Canterbury's soothing meditations on morality. It's a reminder, however subtly, that these religions are large institutions and certain qualities are required to ascend within them."
Christians will be most interested in the five Christian leaders included on the film These are Bishop Mark Hanson (left), of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams (right), Pope Benedict XVI and Frank Page, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention. Conservative Christians will listen for answers to their specific doctrinal questions and some will likely feel dismay at times, though little is said that in any way stands outside the main tenets of Christian faith. Mark Hanson suggests that we must understand we can co-exist if we realize that we share two things in common: our human selves and the cosmos. I could not agree too strongly. It is beyond me why even the most conservative Christians cannot recognize the correctness of this statement and the utter necessity of believing it in the modern world. Alexy II, the Patriach of Moscow, will teach non-Orthodox Christians a great deal about an expression of the Christian faith that they little understand. Anglican Archbishop Rowan Williams makes it very clear that God has revealed himself in Jesus Christ and that he accepts orthodox Christian teaching. But some will wish he had said more if they are determined to find fault. Pope Benedict XVI is the least interesting of the four Christians because the film of him was not done in private interview but in open public meetings. I so wish he had granted the filmmakers personal time so we could have seen the "real human person" who is Benedict XVI, a likable and lovely man. Finally, Frank Page is warm, Christ-centered and humble. Rarely have I seen an evangelical put in such a context who comes across as so genuine and filled with love. I have never seen Frank Page, except in short news clips, and I found him one of the most impressive Southern Baptist leaders I have listened to for many years. One could hope that men like Page remain the face of the SBC for years to come.
In a time when religions are actually talking to each other, Christians are in danger of two extremes. We who openly and faithfully confess orthodox Christian faith must affirm all that is good in others, including the good that there is in the teaching of non-Christian religion. We have specific Christian categories for understanding these truths without resorting to the language of evil and opposition. We must remain firmly committed to Jesus Christ as Lord over all but we can do that without bigotry and fundamentalism. Doing this in the modern context is a serious challenge, one that many of us have not done well. I found this beautiful film a lovely illustration of how this can be done.