Who is in charge of the universe?
Big questions like these are the currency that National Geographic’s beloved documentary, “The Story of God” deals in, and it has yet to shortchange its viewers.
For those unfamiliar with this groundbreaking series, viewers are invited to join Freeman as he travels the world, exploring the nature of faith and religion.
With the inaugural episode of the show’s second season, airing on January 16th, these questions continue, as narrated by the divine voice of Morgan Freeman, even in the midst of both praise and controversy.
Although the series may draw some criticism from religious circles for its neutral exploration of multiple and disparate faiths, it is precisely this that is the documentary’s greatest strength.
In an interview, star and producer of “The Story of God,” Morgan Freeman, as well as producers Lori McCreary James Younger, weigh in on the singular purpose of their work.
“We hope that it will foster conversations that might not otherwise have happened between people of different faiths”, says McCreary, “and if someone of a particular belief system watches it, and they’ve learned something about a different belief, they realize that there’s a common ground to start a conversation. I think it was Herman Melville that said that ignorance is the parent of fear, and we have a lot of fear in the world right now. Perhaps, if we can help allay some of that ignorance, it will help us all.”
The purpose of “The Story of God” is not to proselyte or condemn, but to educate. The word “educate,” comes from the Latin “educare,” which means “to lead out”. And, indeed, as Freeman travels from faith to faith, from belief to belief, viewers find themselves not being let toward any certain view, but are, rather, led out of the darkness of ignorance.
Morgan Freeman chimes in on this issue, noting that it is a hard lesson for some to learn that “their orthodoxy is not challenged by other orthodoxies”.
It is precisely this knowledge that takes “The Story of God” from the place of simple documentary, transforming it into an exercise in cultural bridge-building. Freeman, McCreary, and Younger cut to the heart of each faith they explore, looking at it not from the outside, through the lens of a particular faith or non-faith, but from within. Freeman spends time with the adherents of each faith, asking hard, probing questions, but never passing judgment—a method pioneered by late theology scholar Huston Smith.
Another criticism that could be aimed at the show, from the secular community, could be the question of what is valuable in exploring the unverifiable. After all, if we can’t prove that the divine and the supernatural exist, what use is there in talking about it?
But the value isn’t in the conclusions. The value is in the conversation, itself.
“The very fact that it is unverifiable is worth discussing with everyone who thinks that it is unverifiable,” says Freeman. Younger goes on, saying that “Even science has to live in this world of unverified fact. What do they base their careers on? Things that haven’t been verified yet. They’re driven by mystery, to try to answer questions that haven’t been answered yet.
This drive toward mystery—this, as C.S. Lewis put it, “desire for another world”— is exactly what makes “The Story of God,” so compelling for so many viewers. We all ache with the desire to know, to know where we came from, what our purpose is, why evil exists, what happens when we die, and so much more.
And in delving into these great mysteries we all hold so dear, “The Story of God” reveals the common humanity that is within all of us, building bridges between cultures by erasing the misconceptions and presuppositions we might have about worldviews that are different from ours.
That’s a story worth telling.