Many documentaries on religion have aired this year, most of them only of middling importance, all of them open to controversy. But the difficulty of the discussion is a sign of its significance. And one of the most interesting documentaries about religion you are likely to see this year is "A History of God" (A&E, May 20, 9-11 p.m.), based on the bestseller by Karen Armstrong.
The film traces the rise of monotheism after its first break with ancient paganism. Along with Ms. Armstrong herself, filmmaker Bram Roos has recruited other biblical and religious scholars to speak for their religions. The resulting TV film presents the nuances of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam with fresh historical interpretations.
Take the story of Abraham and Isaac. According to the Hebrew Scriptures, Abraham is told by God to sacrifice his only child, Isaac, as a burnt offering. At the last moment, an angel forbids the sacrifice of the child, and God supplies an animal for the sacrifice instead.
What most of us might find surprising is that in the ancient pagan world the sacrifice of a child was not unusual. So in forbidding the sacrifice of Isaac, God is in effect moving Abraham and his descendants away from the harsh paganism from which he'd come. No more children are to be sacrificed.
The film goes on to explain that eventually the prophets understand Yahweh to forbid all sacrifice. He is understood to be more than a tribal god, more even than the most important god among many. Yahweh is the God of all nations, as Isaiah says.
When Jesus comes, his early followers do not think of him as God, but as the Messiah, Armstrong says.
But over three centuries, the idea of the Trinity evolves and splits the church down the middle. Roman Emperor Constantine convenes the Council of Nicea, and members are ordered to decide whether Jesus is God, the Son, or a human being exalted by God. The Council of Nicea proclaims Jesus is God and that the trinity includes God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Squaring this idea of the trinity with monotheism turns out to be a lot of work for churchmen through the centuries. Islam and Judaism never have the same problem.
The author of 14 books and a famed religious commentator, Armstrong says that researching "The History of God" brought her back to faith. Although she was once a Roman Catholic nun, she left her order and the church.
"I knew too much history. It seemed to me to be all man-made. I limped away from the experience," she says. "But when I began researching my book 'A History of God,' I found that, despite my background, there was an immense amount in the three monotheistic religions that I really could relate to. And I found the unanimity of the religious quest extraordinarily impressive.
"It seems that this is what human beings do, and working in isolation from each other, Jews, Christians, and Muslims kept asking the same kinds of questions and having the same kinds of ideas about God," Armstrong says. "It's part of who we are. It awakened me to the possibility of faith again."
Armstrong says she had doubts as to how theology could translate into television. Reached by phone at her home in London, she says she finds Americans eager to talk about theology, even though language comes under great strain when people talk about God.
"I'm speaking to people in bookstores and on the streets - and the amount of serious, innovative, and intelligent questioning that is going on about how to put religion into the idiom of the 21st century is very exciting," she says.
Human beings constantly encounter a sacred dimension of experience, and they talk about it in different ways, she says. But God goes beyond personality. Jews, Christians, and Muslims have all warned against anthropomorphizing God, she says.
In the TV film, Dr. Maher Hathout of the Islamic Center of Southern California explains that God is so great that He has no limits. To try to imagine God is to impose limits on Him. "What is? God is," he says. "If you limit God even in your imagination, you are creating God. Imagination is but the summation of the five senses. You can't do that to God."
What is amply illustrated in the TV film and in Armstrong's comments, is that the major religions have a deep commitment to compassion. "To nurture hatred, or bigotry, or resentment of any sort is going to keep you from the divine," she says.
"I find it ubiquitous in all the religions that the way to [God] is by compassion.
"Charity and loving kindness have replaced sacrifice in the temple," she says.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor