A decade ago, in reporting on the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, I met a couple who survived the storm by escaping to their church's balcony.
This was the lede on the in-depth narrative feature I wrote on Charles and Angela Marsalis:
NEW ORLEANS — "Girl, you better get out of town!”
Angela Marsalis’ mother made it clear what she thought her daughter should do that weekend as Hurricane Katrina — a Category 5 storm packing 160 mile-per-hour winds — threatened a direct hit on New Orleans.
In a perfect world, Angela — a substitute teacher who helped each day with an after-school program at church — would have done exactly as her mother urged. She, her husband, Charles, and their boys would have joined the clogged procession of vehicles fleeing the tempest predicted to make landfall Monday morning.
But Charles — who worked 12-hour days on a tugboat yet still volunteered most mornings at a Christian outreach center — had just spent $2,000 to fix the family’s blue 2000 Dodge Caravan, wiping out their bank account.
Jittery over the calamity that could befall the bowl-shaped metropolitan area, Angela begged her husband: “Let’s go! Let’s go! Let’s go!”
But her practical side knew they lacked the cash to keep their gas tank full. They simply could not afford to heed the mayor’s mandatory evacuation order.
Now, the Marsalises are about to be featured on actor Morgan Freeman's "The Story of God," a six-episode series that premiered Sunday night on the National Geographic Channel.
Last summer, a representative of Morgan's production company, Revelations Entertainment, contacted The Christian Chronicle, where I serve as chief correspondent, to see if the couple might share their story. I passed along that request, and Freeman interviewed Charles and Angela this past October at the Hollygrove Church of Christ, the Big Easy congregation they launched after Katrina.
For some reason, I get the strong impression the Marsalises were much more excited about their interview with Freeman that they were their conversations with me. Oh, who am I kidding? I would be, too!
"Wait, isn't Freeman an atheist?" said some fellow Christians who heard about the TV program.
Short answer: It's complicated.
And that's a perfect segue to examine some of the media coverage of Freeman's new series, starting with the Washington Post.
The Post actually does a nice job of tackling Freeman's own faith (or lack thereof) right up top:
The man famous for his godly voice and portraying God in “Bruce Almighty” doesn’t believe in God — at least in the traditional way.
Morgan Freeman believes that man invented God. But that doesn’t mean he is an atheist.
“My opinion does not question the existence of God, merely how we arrived at the existence of God,” Freeman said.
Even though man invented God, Freeman feels, God is still God. This God just exists in the mind rather than out in the universe as the creator of all life.
Despite his nontraditional beliefs, Freeman has been traveling the world to learn about different religions for his new six-part National Geographic series, “The Story of God,” premiering April 3.
“Why does almost everybody in the world have a God belief, however it’s manifested, and why? It’s a universal reality,” Freeman said in a February interview at the National Geographic offices in downtown Washington.
Over at Religion News Service, national reporter Emily McFarlan Miller notes:
Each episode of “The Story of God” explores a different question, and Sunday’s premiere starts with one of the biggest: “Where do we go after we die?”
“Beyond Death” took Freeman to the pyramids in Egypt, to Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico and to a spot on the Ganges River in India where Hindus believe they can die and be cremated and end the cycle of reincarnation.
Another episode, “Apocalypse,” asks why people draw comfort from the idea of an end of days — and it brought Freeman to a science lab in Chicago, where the episode screened Wednesday (March 29).
From there, the RNS writer provides a meaty rundown of discussion that the screening generated:
Afterward, a panel of faith leaders from Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu and Christian traditions discussed their religions’ apocalyptic beliefs and the episode’s approach.
Azam Nizamuddin, co-chair of the Interfaith Committee at the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago, expressed disappointment the show focused on the so-called Islamic State rather than on centuries of Islamic theology. And Rabbi Frederick Reeves of KAM Isaiah Israel in Chicago said the Jewish beliefs shared in the episode didn’t represent “the Jews who live down the street from you.”
Bishop Wayne Miller of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America pointed out that not only is there a great diversity of beliefs among world religions, but also within each religion.
“I’ve always found that one of the great values of a piece like this is not that it answers all the questions but that it invites us to open the questions and continue the conversation,” Miller said.
Elsewhere, NPR religion correspondent Tom Gjelten previews the series for "Morning Edition."
Going forward, it'll be interesting to what kind of conversations, questions and media coverage develop as a result of "The Story of God." Will the series make a splash? Or will it be just a flash in the pan?
I DVR'd Sunday night's first episode but was otherwise occupied. Anybody see the premiere? Any thoughts on the series itself or potential news storylines?
In a TV review, the Hollywood Reporter describes Charles and Angela Marsalis' experience as one of the "striking" stories told by Freeman:
A married couple who survived Hurricane Katrina tell Freeman how, in the face of unspeakable horror, they sang religious songs all night long in the dark. “I felt the devil was at work,” Charles Marsalis says. He and his wife say they were compelled to counteract the evil that was surrounding them.
I don't know which of the remaining five episodes will feature the Marsalises, but I'll definitely be watching.