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Morgan Freeman Takes On Omniscient View To Explore Big Uncertainties In 'God'

Apr 3, 2016
Originally published on April 3, 2016 10:12 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Actor Morgan Freeman has a unique instrument. He's known in Hollywood as the voice of God. He was even cast as God in two Hollywood comedies. Now he's engaged in a more serious venture as the host and correspondent of a six-part TV series exploring religion around the world. It's called "The Story Of God," and it premieres tonight. NPR's Tom Gjelten has more.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Morgan Freeman brings more questions than answers in his series on God, as he makes clear in the first episode. It opens in Greenwood, Miss., where Freeman grew up and first encountered death - his grandmother's and his brother's.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE STORY OF GOD")

MORGAN FREEMAN: We all go through this, of course. Everybody grieves. But some people have a certainty that helps them cope with grief. They're certain they will see their loved ones again in heaven. For some of us, it's not quite that simple. In fact, it's the greatest question we ask ourselves. What happens when we die?

GJELTEN: This theme of uncertainty runs through Freeman's story of God. He explores big questions - the meaning of evil, are there miracles, how is the world created - questions for which the great religions do have answers, but none of which he necessarily bought from the outset.

FREEMAN: In other words, your curiosity is fueled by your not knowing. I don't think that we would have been nearly as successful in engaging other people if I had a bias, a strong bias.

GJELTEN: Some of the questions Freeman explores are historical, like which came first, religion or civilization? Others are more current, like how do the major religions today explain how the world was formed - a question Freeman explored at the Vatican in Rome, in Jerusalem and at a coffee shop in Cairo with Islamic historian Ahmed Ragab.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE STORY OF GOD")

FREEMAN: Speak to me about the Islamic concept of creation.

AHMED RAGAB: In Islam, the beginning of the story starts with this massive cloud of smoke.

GJELTEN: Morgan Freeman is far more than a narrator here. He does the interviews himself over in India and down in Central America.

In Guatemala, Freeman visits the ruins of Mayan temples with archaeologist Richard Hansen.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE STORY OF GOD")

FREEMAN: So Richard - now I can sense here that there is a pattern, but something is missing. What am I missing?

RICHARD HANSEN: Well, there is a pattern, Morgan. There's a definite pattern here, and it's consistent through centuries of time.

GJELTEN: Freeman is 78 years old. He and his executive producer, Lori McCreary, traveled the world for six weeks, flying over 100,000 miles.

FREEMAN: We covered something like 20 cities.

LORI MCCREARY: Thirty cities and...

FREEMAN: Thirty cities.

MCCREARY: ...Seven countries. And we were - shot for about 40 days and 40 nights.

GJELTEN: So, Morgan Freeman, how did that compare to the most arduous filming that you've ever done?

FREEMAN: No comparison (laughter) whatsoever.

GJELTEN: They moved constantly, visiting one site one day, another the next.

MCCREARY: As compared to a film where Mr. Freeman has a beautiful trailer, he gets in maybe 10 or 11, depending upon what the call is. He does the crossword puzzle. He gets called to go to set. How long does it take you on set, Morgan, normally?

FREEMAN: Ten or 15 minutes on set, then you go back and wait for another half-hour.

GJELTEN: So this is a lot more work.

FREEMAN: A lot more work.

GJELTEN: To tell the story of God, Freeman explores both ancient and modern faiths, including Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Christianity. He looks for commonalities. One system he finds especially appealing is Zoroastrianism, with its simple tenets - good thoughts, good words, good deeds.

FREEMAN: I think most of the human race subscribe to that. So when I heard that I said, hey, OK, so I'm a Zoroastrian.

GJELTEN: His series on world religions comes, of course, at a time of violent religious conflict. Executive producer Lori McCreary says she hopes the programs serve a larger purpose inasmuch as they show all the faith traditions ask the same questions.

MCCREARY: And we found that the answers to those questions are very similar, and I believe have the power to unite us in ways that would help us all.

FREEMAN: We all have to have some power that controls what we cannot control. And that, whatever name, face you want to give it, is God.

GJELTEN: "The Story Of God" with Morgan Freeman premieres tonight on the National Geographic Channel. Tom Gjelten, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.