How the movies helped me reconcile faith and science

How the movies helped me reconcile faith and science April 18, 2017


Writing about the relationship between faith and science for the blog series on National Geographic’s “The Story of God” was one of my highlights from last year. I was honored to be asked to participate in the blog carnival, but I also had no idea how the project would also send me on my own faith journey.

Discussing my views on the origins of the universe caused me to address questions I’d been wrestling with for years. I knew that the traditional Young Earth Creation views I’d been raised with had shifted, but to be completely honest, I don’t think I wanted to address them. I wanted to move on with my life, avoid any conflict with fellow believers and steer clear of being branded a heretic by some of my more theologically conservative friends. I just wasn’t aware of how much the baggage had shifted during flight and how much those lingering questions would require me to re-think much of my faith.

That’s a good thing, by the way. I think everyone should take time every few years for deconstruction and reconstruction. I once heard Derek Webb describe this process as tearing a house down to the studs, figuring out what was essential and then rebuilding. That’s a process that I’m still going through, and I find it’s bolstered my faith, not weakened it. It’s made it mine, not a borrowed spirituality I’ve simply absorbed from family, friends and various preachers. The long and short of it is that, when it comes to origins, I’ve come to best describe myself as an evolutionary creationist, which I think reconciles both the science of our planet’s origins with the faith of the Bible.

As I’ve heard several very smart people say (and for any Christians struggling with this, I highly recommend the work being done by BioLogos), God reveals himself through two “books.” One is the Bible; the other “book” is science. I believe that God, in his grace, gave us science as a way to understand his wisdom and skill. It lets us look into the intricate world he created and helps us better understand this planet we’ve been put into place as stewards of. It gives us the tools and skills to build amazing technological marvels and, more importantly, the knowledge of how our bodies work so we can heal ourselves. But if I’m going to believe that science is a gift given for those good things, I have to also believe that the same scientific processes that lead us to the conclusion of the Big Bang and evolution likely also have validity.

But I don’t believe evolution is random. I believe that God is in control over it all. There are limits to what science can explain, and there are questions that no experiment can give us answers to. And for those questions of the soul, I turn to the Bible. Science helps understand the “how,” but my faith helps me as I grapple with the “why”. (As for why Christianity instead of the myriad other religions, that’s a topic for another post). I don’t know that the solution is watertight; some questions will always remain as finite beings strive to understand an infinite God. But this gives me peace.

Still, I’ve wrestled with why we have the Genesis account anyway. I understand that men and women thousands of years ago wouldn’t have had the ability to grasp the science we know about today; these mythic accounts helped them understand the big point, which was “God made it.” But why not just start there? Why this narrative? Why this mythology of seven days, a good creation, and the sin of Adam and Eve? Why kick our scriptures off with this tale if it’s a fiction?

The reality, of course, is that just because it’s fiction doesn’t mean it’s not true. There are truths that go deeper than literalism, and profundities that can only be understood through metaphor. The truth to the Genesis accounts is a spiritual one, not a scientific one (the Bible’s never been meant to be a science textbook), and its account of the origins of the world have less to do with the formation of the planet and more to do with the power of God and the entrance of sin.

It actually was a movie that helped me understand this. When Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah” was released in 2014, it stirred up controversy among believers. Gone was the squeaky-clean Sunday School story of smiling animals marching two by two onto the ark. In its place was a grimy, dirty story of death, destruction and potential madness (well, and rock monsters). It’s not a kids’ story; which, since the Noah story is one of the genocide of nearly all mankind, is probably appropriate. In the future, I’d love to revisit this film and really wrestle with its strengths and flaws (I admire it quite a bit), but there’s actually another reason I’m writing about it here.

In the film, after the ark door has been closed and the flood waters have risen, Noah and his family gather together in the boat. The potential end of humanity is dwelling on their minds. And Noah sits with his family and tells them the creation story.

It’s a beautiful moment, and one that has stuck with me even as the majority of “Noah” has faded from my mind. Its mingling of the creation story with evolutionary imagery is a fantastic way of reconciling the two accounts. But more than that, it puts the creation myth in the context that it would have been in biblical times. It’s not meant to be about the literal creation of the planet, but of understanding the context of the world we’ve stepped into. It tells of a perfect world made by a perfect creator, and the means of its creation are beyond the point. What’s important is understanding that once humans set foot on the scene and sinned, it soiled the perfect creation. It brought forth death and destruction, which still remains today.

Noah believes that his family will also die; it’s the only way he can understand how God will set everything right. As an Old Testament tale, it sets the stage for understanding God’s perfection and our sinfulness, and our need for grace to intervene. Which is what ultimately happens in the movie’s final act. “Noah” puts the creation story into context as a way to understand God’s perfection, our sin and the dilemma on which the entire Bible turns.

Another movie also helped me understand the deep truths of the biblical account. Terrence Malick’s 2011 masterpiece “The Tree of Life” is one of my favorite films of all time. The gorgeous, sprawling story is focused on a Texas family as one of the sons grows up, his parents wrestle with tragedy and, years later, the boy wonders how to make sense of it all. Death is a part of this story, as parents grapple with losing a son.

The film opens with a quotation from Job 38:4,7: ““Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth … when the morning stars sang together?” Shortly after that, a mother is informed of her son’s death. The mother cries out to God in prayer. . . and then the film flashes back. Way back.

For nearly 15 minutes, Malick takes us back to the creation of the universe. He depicts the Big Bang and the formation of the galaxies, the building of Earth. A tiny planet passes by the sun. Dinosaurs roam the land. Breathtaking images of Earth’s earliest days are underscored by haunting orchestral and choir compositions, as if creation is a symphony between science and the soul. It’s unlike any moment I’ve ever seen.

“The Tree of Life” confounds some viewers, but for those familiar with the book of Job, these sequences couldn’t be clearer. We cry out for God, we second-guess his wisdom. And he asks us to look back and the foundations of the Earth, and ask us where we were. Our days are just one part of this story that’s been told over the course of billions of years. Who are we to question our role? Who are we to question the One who made it all from nothing and whose plans have set this whole universe into motion? Aren’t we just a punctuation mark in this sprawling epic?

And yet, we are part of the story. As science allows the universe to go on, our faith tells us we play a crucial role. As the story unfolds, the choices we make are part of a bigger story. We have to decide whether we’re going to act wisely and believe that our part matters. And just as God reveals our universe through two “books,” the film presents us with two paths to take in life, the way of nature and the way of grace.

What the “Tree of Life” reminds me is that there’s more to our universe than simple chance and chemical reactions, although those things are very real. And while the how of it all doesn’t really matter, neither can I just accept the science and ignore the faith. To do that would turn me into a selfish, ruthless and reckless being. The way of grace is the beauty that exists within the seeming randomness, the choice to act compassionately even when it goes against my best interest, and to remember that while science can explain so much, there are still things out there to awe me and make me sit silent in wonder.

The movies have helped me contextualize the Genesis account, and I’m thankful for the role art can play in helping nurture our souls.

This blog post was written as part of a symposium on faith and science for National Geographic’s new series, “Genius.” 

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