Interview: James Younger on the New Series “The Story of God”

Posted on March 29, 2016 at 3:55 pm

James Younger is executive producer of the new Morgan Freeman series, “The Story of God,” which premieres this Sunday, April 3, 2016. It was a pleasure to speak to him about the challenges of taking on such a complicated and sensitive topic.

You really took on quite an ambitious project!

It was a monumental undertaking to try to cover all the faiths of the world and 10,000 years of history and do it all in the space of just nine months from start to finish was a pretty heavy task but we certainly did a pretty good job. I’m very happy with what we did and clearly we could have done an awful lot more.

Where did the idea begin?

Morgan Freeman and his producing partner Lori McCreary had been working together for many years with their own production company and they were in Istanbul about seven years ago at the Hagia Sophia which is a museum, one of the oldest churches in the world and then it became a mosque. And they were looking up at the decoration of the mosaic on the wall and they were like, “This is a mosque and how can there be all these images of Jesus and the virgin birth and miracles?” And there was a tour guide who told them, “Oh no at this time it was accepted and Jesus was a prophet in Islam. So it’s part of the story.” And their reaction to that was, “Well wow, we think of ourselves as fairly educated and enlightened people and we have an interest in religion and faith and the fact that we don’t know that Jesus is a prophet in Islam is shocking. Just imagine what else we don’t know.” I’d been working with them on this series called Through The Wormhole, which is a kind of a scientific exploration of the big questions of existence: why we’re here, where we came from, what happens when we die. We realized we could make a show in a similar vein: let’s ask big questions but not from the point of view of science but from the point of view of faith and see how different faiths answer those questions.

What did you do to try to reach out to the different faith communities to make sure that you were being sensitive to their concerns?

We involved different faith communities from the beginning. We had ideas historically and anthropologically and culturally on how we would try to divide up this series but we had advisors from all the major faiths with us the whole time in the process. So when we would write a script for treatment or shooting plan we made sure we got feedback and if we made a mistake like, “Oh no this is not really how Islam sees the apocalypse” or “This isn’t how Buddhism understands enlightenment,” we would make sure to correct that. And we involved various faiths along the whole process so that they would see rough cuts and give notes so that’s one aspect.

Then the other aspect is we never tried to pit faith and religion against one another like, “Oh, this is how this faith answers life after death, and this is how this does it, which one is the better answer? Which one is more correct?” We never do that. We are just asking questions and showing people the differences between religious viewpoints but at the same time showing people the similarities between them.

What did you find to be the sort of the universal ideas and what were the ones where there was the most disparity?

Certainly there’s a lot of similarities in this idea of the afterlife. That somehow what happens to us after death is important as it relates to life, people who are living now. I would say you look at the ancient Egyptians, you look Aztecs, they all believed that there’s some power that comes from the dead. And when people die there is something left over, like the idea of the soul or something which is connected to something eternal, divine. That’s kind of a universal aspect. So that was really unifying, the idea that there’s something more to life that’s just physical form of life.

In what way are they the most different? I would say probably the most different is and this is not really different between all religions but between some is that this idea of apocalypse and the end of the world. The idea of the apocalypse, this idea of the Day of Judgment, this thunderbolt, lightning, the destruction of the world is really uniquely Abrahamic. It is from this Jewish, Christian, Islamic and actually originally Zoroastrianism, that’s a very much a belief that came out of the Middle East around 2000 years ago. You don’t find that in Hinduism, you don’t find that in Buddhism you don’t find that in not the Navajo religion, you don’t find this idea of like this one mindset like there’s something wrong with the world there is an injustice that can’t be righted but it will be righted a specific day when God will intervene and save the righteous. That’s probably the biggest separation between faiths.

There is also the question of free will, whether everything is predetermined. That is something that ancient Romans believed, that your faith is entirely in the hands of God and everything could be the result of divine intervention, every coin toss that you make is going to be determined by somebody else. In the Christian faith and Western tradition there is more of a sense of free will, that we have a choice in what we do. You may be judged for what you do, but you do have that choice.

What about the visual depictions of God. Of course some religions don’t have any like of the ones that do, what were some of the most interesting?

Copyright 2016 National Geographic
Copyright 2016 National Geographic

Well the obvious thing to think about there is that Hinduism, there was a religion where there are as many as 330 million gods. That is so different from Western idea of God, God is this kind of divine almost space less energy. In Islam and Judaism God literally has no form, He is invisible, He has no human form. In Christianity there is a human form to God in the person of Jesus but still there is this idea that God is the sun beams coming down from the sky, right? And in Hinduism you have the all the statues of idols of gods and people worship them and you think it is completely different but when you look into it a bit more it’s not. In a way these statues are proxies for God and different aspects of the divine and even Hindus believe that there is behind the different gods that they pray to a universal divine energy which is called Brahman. And Brahman is a kind of divine eternal energy that spreads into all the gods and it becomes a bit like the Saints of Catholicism, you have a God but then you pray to a Saint for specific intervention and so there is similarity even there.

Tell me a little bit about the logistics. You traveled quite a bit to make this series. What were some of the most difficult locations?

We traveled to seven countries. Many cities we had to fly to by helicopter. We went to the middle of the Guatemalan Rainforest to see the remains of this 2000 year old Mayan city called El Mirador. We went to Israel in the middle of a period of violence, so we couldn’t go to the Arab Quarter, and that was very challenging. We also got kicked out of the Church of Holy Sepulchre when we were filming there, in Jerusalem. We got into a little trouble when we went into an area that we weren’t supposed to. But anyway we worked it out and we got back and we finished up the shoot. And India was just challenging, filming on these narrow lanes of Tirupati by the Ganges, a very sacred ancient city in India. Logistically moving with Morgan and our camera crew down these tiny lanes literally five feet wide with cows and mopeds and dead bodies and scores of people going to past you. It was very challenging to film there.

I was a little surprised but really intrigued and interested in the first chapter that you visited with Martine Rothblatt and Bina Aspen to explore the non-religious idea of eternal life via computer.

This idea of life after death is just one idea where all the advances that are happening in computation and neuroscience really actually can change the landscape there and raise the idea: could it be possible to keep the essence of somebody alive after they die? We choose them because they have Bina48 which is a fantastic robot facsimile of Bina with thoughts, emotions, and memory and they wanted to just talk to them about whether they think that life after death might be possible.

And would you say that this program is for believers, non-believers, or those who are seeking answers?

It’s for everybody. It’s for everybody who wants to know more about other people’s faith traditions, for non-believers to understand people’s faith, to people of faith to understand other faiths, to even understand what non-believers think. It’s for anyone who has a open mind and wants to know more.

The Story of God with Morgan Freeman Season 1 on DVD January 10, 2017 and Season 2 premiers on National Geographic, January 16th.

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