Science and Faith at the Movies: “Creation,” Part 1
This is part of filmmaker Brian Godawa's series "Science and Faith at the Movies." The full paper on Creation can be found here. Godawa, together with filmmaker, Michael Corwin produced the BioLogos video, "Are Science and Faith in Conflict?"
In this new column I will review both recent and past movies that deal with the issues surrounding science and faith. If you read my preliminary paper, you know that I consider storytelling to have as much influence on the cultural conversation as science and politics. The discourse of imagination, though different in how it operates from the rational and empirical disciplines, is just as legitimate an aspect of our human quest for truth. In light of that goal, I thought it would be most fitting to start this column with a review of Creation, the biopic about Charles Darwin, the patron saint of evolution.
This movie telegraphs its intent on the opening title card that it is the story about how The Origin of the Species, “the biggest single idea in the history of thought” came to be written and published in 1859. As anyone educated in the history of ideas knows, paradigms and grand narratives do not originate in a vacuum of intellectual abstraction or objective scientific observation. They are often birthed through a confluence of new discoveries as well as the cultural zeitgeist fertilizing the idiosyncratic history, psyche, and imagination of their authors. Creation makes the argument that Darwin’s Origin is no exception to this rule, thereby crafting a deeply personal look at the rich genealogy of this world changing book in the noble sufferings of a reluctant but brave scientist.
This is a rather dour and somber period British story, not the light fanfare of Jane Austen fans, but a smartly crafted, melodramatic bittersweet love story between Charles and his dearly devoted wife, Emma. Charles is depicted as losing his faith, and Emma is a Christian believer, so their tumultuous relationship becomes a metaphor for the very “warfare of science and religion” that was being constructed in the progressive circles of European naturalists of the day. Charles Darwin, played with a personal and private sensitivity by Paul Bettany is nicely complemented by the Victorian yet loving austerity of Jennifer Connelley as Emma Darwin.
The very spirit of the era is captured in the desaturated cinematography of Jess Hall, using wide angle close ups of drab or cluttered environments and intimate microzooms to capture the world through the eyes of 19th century naturalists -- a world of detailed examination of the processes, pieces and minutiae of nature. One poignant visual moment is when we follow Charles’ eyes at a picnic to a little rat in the grass. The camera zooms in, following the rat up to a cattle skull in the ground where time lapse shows us the maggots that breed, and are picked up by a bird for her chicks. One of the chicks falls to the ground, dies, and is eaten by bugs and maggots form again. A cinematic depiction of the cycle of nature red in tooth and claw, life founded upon death.
Though the movie depicts evolution as an enemy of God, Emma is not unfairly portrayed as the typical Hollywood version of an uneducated fanatical zealot. Yes, she cares for her husband’s soul, and tells him she doesn’t want to see him end up in hell, but it comes out of a deeply held conviction and true love for her spouse. A portrayal of their different view of life is embodied in a contrast of their focused activities: he in joyfully recording minute details of his daughter’s physical growth while Emma plays passionately beautiful music on the piano -- a Thomistic portrait of nature versus grace, or is this a more balanced picture of the beauty of science and the science of beauty?
Even the Reverend Innes, played with caring sensitivity by Jeremy Northam, is not a preachy oppressive authoritarian, but rather a man of his time, sincerely affirming the consensus view. In fact, Darwin becomes as much at fault for their eventual breakup when he lashes out at Innes from his own intolerance. And the movie also portrays some of the very science and medicine of the day in all its glaring weaknesses showing its own share of superstition. Charles spurns the Reverend’s religion that makes his daughter kneel on stones at religious school as punishment for asserting her belief in dinosaurs (only recently discovered) but engages in the now laughable hydrotherapy and sweating treatment to purify the blood. So science and religion are not as black and white opposites as first supposed.
The assumed enmity between God and evolution is incarnate in the first frames of the film when we see a series of images of nature ascending in complexity from bacterium all the way up to a human fetus, which has its little hand out in the pose from Michelangelo’s famous Sistine Chapel painting, The Creation of Adam. But in this case there is no creator’s hand to meet it, just the title of the movie. Charles tells the true story of Captain Fitzroy attempting to “civilize” captured native children from the del Fuego tribe with Christian culture, only to fail when taking them back to their people for evangelism. The children discard their western garb and instantly turn back into their little savage selves, thus displaying the incompetence of Christianity to understand human nature.
T.H. Huxley, played with vindictive acidity by Toby Jones, arrives to challenge Darwin to write his book based on his new ideas of natural selection and descent with modification. Huxley spews his venom with delight, “You killed God, sir. And I for one say good riddance to the vindictive old bugger. Science is at war with religion. And when we win, we’ll finally be rid of those damned archbishops and their threats of eternal punishment.”
Charles is deeply troubled by this antagonism because of his apparent commitment to the church as a social binding force. He is visibly sickened and will be so for the rest of the story, because of the very implications of his pursuits being against his tradition as well as his wife’s beliefs. This is a man who does not have the same hostility toward religion that his enemies do. For him, to lose God is to lose everything. As he states to his daughter in answer to her question of why he is troubled, “Suppose the whole world stopped believing God had a plan for us. Nothing mattered. Not love, trust, faith, not honor. Only brute survival. Apart from everything else, it would break your mother’s heart.”
But this is not just a love story of man and wife; this is also a story of Charles’ tortured love for his favorite eldest daughter Annie, played with lively vigor by Martha West. Annie became ill and died at age ten. The movie’s use of non-linear storytelling allows us to see contemporary events in their context with past events surrounding Annie and her special relationship with Charles in order to craft a deep identification between the two. And the filmmakers also effectively use a technique of Charles talking to a figment of his own imagination of Annie to show his guilt haunting him.
We ultimately see that in Annie’s death lies the emotional crux between Charles and Emma and with Charles’ own lack of faith in God. For the very thing that brought anger with a “loving” God, the death of his most beloved child, a mirror of his own intellectual curiosity, also becomes the one thing that haunts him as he writes his Origin. As He writes his book about survival of the fittest we discover that Charles’ marriage to his first cousin Emma is in fact an example of the weak genes of such interbreeding being weeded out by survival.
But Charles cannot accept this. Because of his love for his dying daughter, he fights against his own theory of survival of the fittest. He cannot allow the weak to die, and he behaves in an altruistic Christ-like fashion by leaving his family flock to save his one sheep by bringing her to a cure center far away in the town of Malvern. In a deeply moving and ironic exchange of places, Emma, the Christian, chooses the evolutionary path of staying with her brood of children instead of going with him -- and never forgives herself for it.
When Charles himself goes to the same cure center for the same hydrotherapy years later, we see through intercuts of Annie’s water therapy years earlier a sort of religious atonement that Charles engages in taking on the guilt of his child’s suffering and seeking to purge the sins of his blood. He even prays to the God he has not yet left to be a sacrificial substitute: “Take me if you must take someone.” So, in a sense, we see a man who does not want to accept the perceived consequences of his own ideas, who seeks to maintain the very meaning and purpose in life that he believes his theory has expunged. He is a tormented soul.
We eventually learn that Annie’s death is what drove Emma to faith for comfort, and Charles to science. It is not until Charles heals his relationship with Emma that he overcomes his physical sickness. And when he comes face to face with Emma’s unchanging love for Charles, he is reborn in a marriage that would last until he died at age 73. In a creative scene of renewed intimacy, Charles and Emma make love, but it is not the raw physical “scientific” details of the natural sex act that is shown, but rather, the afterglow of intimate human connection, the spiritual side of love. This pivotal moment serves to highlight the relationship of Charles and Emma as one of deep love despite their personal religious differences, and may in fact be an analogy for how faith and love transcends the physical world.
Charles finishes the book and in a daring scene of renewed trust in his wife, asks her to read it and make the decision of what to do with it: publish or let it perish. She looks at him with surprise as he tells her, “Someone needs to take God’s side in all this.” Well, we all know what happened: the book was published. So in the last moments of the film, now Emma looks into his eyes and says with bittersweet love for him, “And so. You’ve finally made an accomplice of me.” Perhaps the filmmakers are seeking to make a metaphor here of an uneasy harmony between faith and science that avoids the hostility of atheism while seeking an honest pursuit of science no matter where it leads.
But the journey of Charles Darwin in this movie is one of a troubled soul in conflict with his pursuit of truth. The very suffering and death that he personally experienced with his own beloved child and echoed in a world built upon mass extinction and death is a legitimate concern for the Christian who believes in a loving God. One poignant moment occurs in the film when Reverend Innes attempts to comfort Charles with the glib, “The Lord moves in mysterious ways.” Charles responds, “Yes he does, doesn’t he. He has endowed us in all of his blessed generosity with not one but 900 species of intestinal worms. And on the love he shows butterflies by inventing a wasp that lays its eggs inside the living flesh of caterpillars.”
Brian will continue his series this Thursday with a look at creation and the problem of evil.