By: Gibson Johns
To many, Morgan Freeman is a sort of god. The Academy Award-winning actor's legend is so cemented in Hollywood history -- and his wise, sage-like voice so iconic and rich -- that fellow artists and pop culture fanatics alike almost, well, worship his body of work. He even played God in two films!
So, when Freeman, along with producers Lori McCreary and James Younger, decided to tell "The Story of God," it immediately felt right. The man who has been the voice behind so many epic tales dissecting life's biggest questions? There isn't a better match.
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"The Story of God with Morgan Freeman" is a six-part series on the National Geographic Channel that brings Freeman around the world -- 20 cities in seven different countries, to be exact -- as he talks to people of a variety of cultures and religions, striving to find the meaning of life in the process. Each of the series' six episodes touches upon a different question or theme: Creation, Who is God?, Evil, Miracles, End of Days and Resurrection.
Throughout the series, Freeman -- who categorizes himself as "a believer" -- shows a genuine curiosity when talking to people from all walks of life, interweaving his signature mix of wisdom, wit and knowledge to elevate the ambitious series into one that is truly insightful and dynamic.
We talked exclusively to Morgan Freeman and Lori McCreary about their powerful series, their own spiritual journeys and upbringings and what they hope viewers will walk away with once the series comes to a close on Sunday, May 8, at 9/8c on the National Geographic Channel.
See photos of Morgan Freeman through the years:
Check out our full conversation with Morgan Freeman and Lori McCreary:
First of all, congratulations on such an incredible, eye-opening series. Obviously, you were taking on some huge topics full of lofty questions. What was your approach in planning "The Story of God"?
Lori McCreary, Executive Producer: When we first talked to National Geographic, they wanted to do six hours, and we thought, "Holy moly, that's a lot of hours!" But when we started digging into the subject more, we thought, "Holy moly, how are we going to do this in only six hours?" [Laughs] We talked about a lot of different ways to approach it: Do we do one religion an hour? Do we look at different religions at different times throughout history? What we finally decided upon was, What were the questions that all of these religions ask? And, How do those individual religions answer them? Questions like, What happens when we die?, What does God look like?, How did we all get here? That's how we eventually narrowed down the topic and were able to format it.
Did you have a goal -- either personal or universal -- going into the project?
Morgan Freeman, Host: No, I wouldn't say that. There was no real goal. So, if you asked me what my goal was, I'd say that my goal was to learn.
You've talked about how, when going into it, you wanted to highlight the similarities between different religions rather than the differences. Can you elaborate on that a bit?
Freeman: Let's talk for a minute about the differences: The differences are the same as the differences between any two human beings. You look at me and I have dark skin and I'm tall, and I look at you and you don't look like me. But, what is the real difference between you and me? Only where we are. Where we are shapes who we are... I'm just making all this shit up for you, Gibson. [Laughs]
McCreary: For me the interesting thing was, because we were asking these similar questions, though the answers seemed really different -- like, Hindus believe in reincarnation and Christians believe in Heaven -- when we dug even further, we found that ultimately even Hindus, though they believe in reincarnation, there is a be-all end-all. They want to get to the end...
Freeman: They want to get to heaven!
McCreary: Right, they want to get to the end of the reincarnation, which is being one with God. And that's similar to the way that Christians would explain it -- it's just that sometimes, I guess, the conversation stops when people say, "Well, I don't believe in that." We need to get farther into the discussion. For me, the enlightening part was finding so many similarities once we got past the superficial, "You pray this way, and I pray this way."
How did the process of filming "The Story of God" change or alter your own personal worldview or religious beliefs?
McCreary: One thing that it did for me was help connect the scientific side of me with the spiritual side of me. I have always had people who knew I was a computer scientist look at me with their eyebrows raised. And, yes, a part of me always thought it seemed odd that I could believe [in God], because you hear so many things, like, you either believe in creation or you believe in the Big Bang. You're either a scientist or you're a religious person. We have so many conversations with very scientific and very religious people who basically laid out that there's no difference in the questions that a scientist and a person seeking spirituality are asking. We're all asking the same big questions. How we answer them may be different, but the two can coexist.
We spoke to a man at the Pontifical Academy of Science who said something that will stick with me for the rest of my life: The Big Bang is the scientific explanation of creation, and the Bible is the theological explanation of creation. That, to me, helped really reconcile those two sides.
Freeman: I'll tell you a little anecdote. My dad was not a religious person at all. My mom was, and she would go to church regularly and ask him to come with her. And his answer to that was, "Listen, I don't need to be wasting my time listening to someone giving me a ton of crap."
But then he fell out out of a tree at the age of about 70 and hurt his back to the point that he was really damaged: He had a few operations and wound up walking with two canes. One day, I came to visit -- I was living in New York and my parents were living in Mississippi, where I live now -- and I come home and there's my dad sitting there with one of those mega-Bibles. You know, the size of an encyclopedia. I have to admit, I laughed. I said, "Dad? What is this?" You know what his answer was? "You never know."
Now, I'm not my father; somewhere down the line, early on, I got to this place where I became a believer. It's just that the nature of belief has shifted as I've moved through life. That's all.
So, for you, it's about the journey.
I read that you were both surprised at how personal some of the answers to these big questions were both for yourselves but also for the people you talked to. Why do you think that is?
McCreary: I suppose it's along the lines of what I was saying: That, even though we might answer the questions differently in terms of what happens when we die, ultimately we're all coming around to the same answer: That we want to be one with God. Where did we come from? We came from nothing, and we all became who we are. Whether that "nothing" was the clouds or the Big Bang or God grabbing everything and throwing it into the universe, they're all very similar and they don't necessarily negate each other as answers.
As Morgan was saying earlier, depending on where you grew up and what stories you've heard, all [of these religions are] describing very similar answers.
Morgan, you've said in the past that you've "always been fascinated by God." Where did that fascination come from? Was there a specific instance or event that sparked that fascination?
Freeman: I didn't know of God until I was maybe 10 or 11 years old. I didn't grow up in the church as a little boy; I think I went to church once when I was, like, six and a half years old. That was it. Not until around 10 did I start wondering, What is it? Why is it? Where is it? I started seriously reading at around age 8, and I think when you start reading, these questions just sort of appear because, in much of literature, God exists. So, the question then becomes, Okay, who is that? and How does that -- meaning God -- related to me? As you grow up, you learn gradually how God relates to you. God is the benevolent provider, God is the wrathful father of humanity, God is the glue that holds all things together.
In the final episode, airing on Sunday, May 8, you say, "To believe in miracles is to believe that there's more to life than meets the eye" and that, "We should believe in miracles because they give us hope." Can you elaborate on how you came that conclusion?
Freeman: After hearing from the people that we talked to about miracles, anyone would come to that same conclusion, if you're as thoughtful and deep as I am. [Laughs] In the final analysis, it's ultimately about hope. We believe in miracles because without them, there is no hope. There's not enough hope without them. We say [in everyday life], "I'm hoping for a miracle." As in, for example, "I'm hoping that Stephen Curry can make this three-point jumper." [Laughs]
Finally, what do you both hope viewers take from their experience of watching the show?
McCreary: I would hope that viewers learn something more about their own religious beliefs, and more importantly, about other people's religious beliefs. Also, finding some commonality with someone that they might not have had a conversation with, and that that might spark a conversation and discussion in a way that will bring people together.
Freeman: The human experience is the human experience; I don't care where you are on the planet, you're going to find people who are deeply spiritual and that will almost always include some manifestation of God, a God we can all belief in and understand.