by M. James SawyerJune 4th, 2012 76 Comments
Last night Kay and I attended the world premiere of a new film. I could wax eloquent and say this was the first time I’ve ever attended a movie premiere, and it was, but when we use that language it conjures up the idea of limousines, red carpets, stars in formal attire, paparazzi and other media hype. This world premiere was in a small old theater just off University Avenue in Palo Alto. The film, From the Dust: conversations in creation, is a documentary looking at the state of the conversation concerning science and evolution in the fundamentalist and evangelical communities.
The film asks questions such as, “Does the Bible provide a narrative of mankind’s material origins?” “What is the real source of the controversy surrounding evolution vs. creation?” And how do we reconcile scientific discovery with a loving, universal, creator-God?”
The importance of opening a true discussion as opposed to and name-calling those who do not agree with us cannot be overstated. The construction of the film allows representatives of the two sides of the discussion, i.e. those evangelicals and fundamentalists who insist on a recent six-day creation and those evangelicals who see the physical evidence in the world as pointing to the reality of evolution, to present their positions in their own words. This format is effective in avoiding such caricaturization.
The list of those appearing in the film is impressive. Among those interviewed are: Dr. Alister McGrath (Ph.D. in molecular biophysics & D.D. both from Oxford University), Rev. Dr. John Polkinghorne (mathematician, theoretical physics, Anglican priest); Dr. John Walton (Old Testament scholar, Wheaton University, author of The Lost World of Genesis One), Bishop Dr. N.T. Wright (New Testament Scholar, Anglican Bishop of Durham); Dr. Peter Enns (Old Testament scholar and author of The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins), Dr. Richard Colling (Olivet Nazarene University, author Random Designer), Dr. April Masckiewicz (Assoc. Professor of Biology, Point Loma Nazarene University). Dr. Clay Brinson (D.V.M. University Georgia, Canopy Ministries) Dr. James Denton (M.D. University of Virginia), Dr. Daryl Falk (Ph.D., President of Biologos Foundation and Professor of Biology, Point Loma Nazarene University), Dr. Jason Lisle (Ph.D. Astrophysicist), Dr. Jeff Schloss (Ph.D. Professor of Biology, Westmont College) to name just some of the interviewees.
The tone of the film is balanced and positive and representatives of each position articulate their answers to the questions under discussion in their own words and with their own rationale.
Production values are acceptable to good. The digital projection at the theatre was somewhat problematic—projecting a DVD onto the big screen caused occasional pixelization of the image. However, when viewed on the small screen these problems disappear.
The questions of worldview and paradigm change are addressed head-on but not in these terms. There is an explicit recognition that for those who have been raised in the fundamentalist and evangelical camps and taught to distrust science and see all truth as being grounded more or less directly in scripture, the exposure to the scientific method and how science really works is a “gut-wrenching” experience. A number of years ago the son of one of my colleagues, who graduated from one of the best Christian high schools in Northern California, matriculated at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo where he majored in one of the scientific disciplines. Shaking his head he complained that virtually everything he learned about science and the scientific method in High School needed to be unlearned. I am not talking about evolution here. I am talking about the nature and practice of the scientific method itself. Unfortunately, as the film reveals things have not changed over the past two decades. Many conservative Christians still remain ignorant of and hostile to science itself.
The film pivots between science, its nature and limits and biblical interpretation. It raises the issue of the nature of the biblical text and what questions was it trying to answer: to whom is Genesis written, how would its first readers have understood it? What are the questions they were asking? Were they asking of the text the same questions we ask? Likewise with reference to the scientific method: what are its strengths as well as its limits. Specifically, the interviewees assert the limits of the scientific method. It is strictly materialistic. As a method of knowledge it can only address the and how of material processes as opposed to questions of meaning and purpose.
The other topic that was introduced but not (unfortunately) more fully developed was that of intellectual certainty. Specifically what is the nature of the certainty we can have in this world. The fundamentalism of the atheists as well that of the creationists seeks certainty without ambiguity; simplicity with the discomfort of complexity. There is an inherent fear that to let go of certainty is to slip into irrationality. I have observed elsewhere it is as if the rigid belief system literally holds reality together and to question anything is to see reality itself crumble. I first became painfully aware of this phenomenon over twenty-five years ago, with reference to attitudes toward quantum physics (not evolution)…
. . .in a series of articles in Christianity Today during the mid-1980s on how quantum physics was revolutionizing the concept of the nature of reality. To those with no previous exposure, the subject of the discussion was in some cases quite unnerving. The telling point here is not primarily in the articles themselves, but in the reactions that appeared in the letters to the editor in the following issues. One pastor wrote: “Mass that exists, then becomes non-existent in transit, then exists again according to our will? I don’t have to listen to this! Beam me up, Lord!”. . . Perhaps most disturbing was the example the author of the original article cited in his opening paragraph: “A few weeks ago an acquaintance of ours, a theologian, remarked in the course of a stimulating dinner conversation that he considered quantum mechanics the greatest contemporary threat to Christianity. In fact, he said if some of the results of this theory were really true, his own personal faith in God would be shattered.” Those responding to the new ideas reacted strongly to having their view of creation challenged with the new paradigm because, I suspect, their own faith and understanding of God himself were tied in an almost absolute way to their view of the nature of the created order, the physical world. To assent to the truth of quantum physics would be to destroy God himself. These reactions did not just come from lay people. They came from pastors and theologians as well. 
I find it ironic how deeply we as contemporary conservative Christians had bought into what Daniel Taylor has called The Myth of Certainty. In an era that has been more safe and stable than most any era in history, security/certainty whether it be financial, political or intellectual has been set up as a virtual idol. Doubt or uncertainty is not to be tolerated. Underlying this quest for or belief that, one has achieved absolute certainty is I believe an irrational fear that without our certainty reality itself will come unraveled. While common, it is in fact idolatrous! Our certainty, our trust and stability is not to be found in our mental constructs, or our bank account, our political system or anything besides our Creator and Savior. Certainty is where we end up when we lose faith. The stance of faith is exploring questions rather than absolute scientific answers.
The film doesn’t break new ground but is a call for understanding between the two camps. As I watched I recognized several unspoken assumptions that were not explicitly addressed in the film in other than a single comment by one interviewee. First, what is the source of authority? From the second century, Christians have formally recognized two “books of revelation,” the scriptures and the created order. This is true of Catholics, Orthodox and the Reformers as well as later Protestants. These two must be in harmony since God is the author of both—one cannot be legitimately pitted against the other and each has its own sphere to which it is speaking. Galileo was not the first one to say it, but he did make the quip famous. “Scripture was not given to teach us how the heavens go, but how to go to heaven.”
I believe the film achieves its goal of opening up conversation about the “elephant in the living room,” the E-word (evolution). It will be valuable conversation starter for campus and church study groups.
The From the Dust DVD can be ordered from BioLogos Foundation for $20 or $25 for the Blu-ray: http://www.highwaymedia.org/Product4.aspx?ProductId=1985&CategoryId=171.
 M. James Sawyer, The Survivor’s Guide to Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), 53.
 Daniel Taylor, The Myth of Certainty (Downers Grove: IVP, 1999).
- The History of Science is the History of Bad Ideas
- The Gospel of the Young Earth
- The Creation-Evolution Debate in a Nutshell
- Creation and Evolution: Keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing
- Six Views on the Creation/Evolution Debate