Sitting in the Clarksdale, Mississippi, renowned blues club Ground Zero, Morgan Freeman got lost in the blues, a music that he believes was born in the Mississippi Delta. Freeman’s eyes light up whenever he talks about his passion for the blues.
“I think how I engage in the blues,” said the actor, “what I feel and experience when I’m listening to the sounds of folks like Muddy Waters or Bessie Smith, is similar to how people all over the world feel and experience God.”
How the world experiences God is one of the themes that Freeman explores in the National Geographic Channel’s event series The Story of God with Morgan Freeman. Freeman travelled to locations around the world to encounter how a variety of cultures and people experience God, and to uncover how and why people engage in the story of God.
Pondering his global experience, Freeman says, “What amazed me more than anything was how much humanity has in common when it comes to engaging God’s story.”
During his journey, Freeman visited Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, one of the world’s largest evangelical megachurches, led by Joel and Victoria Osteen.
Morgan Freeman at the Lakewood Church
After a short meeting with the Osteen’s backstage, Freeman decided he wanted to experience a Lakewood service in its entirety. While sitting in the crowded auditorium, Freeman observed a diverse gathering of several thousand people singing, clapping and sometimes dancing as a talented band of musicians and singers led the lively congregation in praise and worship music. The messages that Lakewood’s songs project are made up of a variety of declarations about God — who God is, what God can do and how God can change an individual’s life.
“There’s a lot of joy here,” said Freeman. “That’s unmistakable.”
During Osteen’s 30-minute Bible-verse-infused sermon titled “It’s Coming Together,” the celebrity pastor encouraged his flock to keep believing despite their circumstances, a spiritual motivation that the pastor delivered passionately.
“Behind the scenes God is arranging things in your favor,” Osteen told his followers. “God is lining up the right people, the healing, the promotion, the favor. … If you stay in faith, at the right time, you will see it come together. … God will make it happen for you.”
Osteen’s message was well-received by the Lakewood members, a people of varying socioeconomic backgrounds who affirmed Osteen’s words with nodding and verbal exclamations.
Though the culture and religious beliefs are different in many ways than those of the faithful who filled up Lakewood’s 8,000 seats, the spiritual temperament that Freeman encountered halfway around the world at a worship ceremony at the Pasupathi Nath Temple in Varanasi, India was equally as passionate as what he experienced at Lakewood.
As Freeman entered the Hindu temple, he heard the sounds of worship as 150 monks chanted, sang and moved in sync with each other.
“This ritual is called a ‘puja,’” said Binda Paranjape, a professor of history at Banarus Hindu University and Freeman’s tour guide. “They’re doing this in honor of the goddess Lalitha, the Divine Mother who symbolizes purity.”
Just a few feet away from the temple, large and small gatherings of Hindu faithful line the riverbanks of the Ganges, India’s holiest river.
“People come to Varanasi from all over the world to experience the glory of the Ganges,” said Paranjape. “They come here seeking salvation. They come here to wash away the evil effects of their own sins. Many come here to die in order to have their ashes tossed into the waters of the Ganges so their souls can be free.”
But like many people whose cultures and religions are intertwined by history, customs and story, Paranjape says that, among Hindus, ideas like “freedom” and “salvation” vary from person to person.
“Salvation is a broadly understood concept,” she said. “One person might think of ‘salvation’ as experiencing inner peace or contentment, or they might think of it as living a long and healthy life. Another might think of it as getting a job or winning a court case or having the opportunity to vacation in the U.S.”
In an effort to grasp more of humanity’s relationship with the divine, in addition to Houston and India, Freeman visited a variety of settings, including a mosque in Cairo, the Western Wall in Jerusalem, a scientific lab in Geneva and a hospital in Philadelphia.
Morgan Freeman receives a hi-res brain scan.
In Philadelphia, Freeman explored “neurotheology,” a term coined by Dr. Andy Newberg, a neurology researcher as well as a professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Together, Newberg and Freeman explored whether it’s possible to “see God” in a believer’s brain. Not only does Newberg believe it is possible, he’s convinced that his experiments showcase how humans from varied traditions use different parts of their brain to interact with the divine.
“Newberg is conducting some fascinating research,” said Freeman, “and it was quite interesting hearing him talk about all of the positive effects that prayer and meditation have on the brain.”
Freeman smiled, “Maybe, just maybe, there’s a little bit of God inside each of us … just like the blues.”
The Story Of God With Morgan Freeman continues Wednesdays 9.30pm AEST/NZST on National Geographic Channel