Using Film to Catalyze Conversations on Faith and Science
Like many other Christians who are scientists, I hope for healthy and robust conversations about science and Christian faith. How can we inform and stimulate such conversations on campuses among students, faculty and staff, or at our churches? These are essentially cross-cultural interactions, and often do not come easily. Yet there is much to be gained by crossing the barriers erected at the science-faith interface.
What are the best ways to spark productive conversations about science and faith? Certainly there are books, articles, blogs (like this one), and podcasts. Or we can host major events with a prominent speaker or panel. These are all good things, to be sure. But there are particular advantages to using film. Unlike books, articles, blogs, or podcasts, videos engage with both sight and sound. A single DVD is much less expensive than a dozen copies of a book for a group to read through together. A film is portable, flexible, quick, and easy to use. Participants don't need to prepare between sessions, nor do they require internet access. And you don't need to find a big-name speaker or organize a large-scale event.
Test of Faith
Unlike years ago, there are now high-quality and stimulating science-faith documentaries that are well-suited for engaging groups and stimulating conversations. The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, based in Cambridge, UK, has put together an award-winning documentary, Test of Faith: Does Science Threaten Belief in God? This 2009 film is divided into three distinct 30-minute sessions, which can be further divided if desired. A wide range of topics are considered, including the age and origin of the universe, the possibility of other universes, evolution, care for the environment, the brain, free will, and bioethics. The trailer can be seen above. This film is a good choice if you are not looking to focus primarily on issues around biological evolution. It is also particularly well-suited for groups that include both skeptics and Christians, as one could imagine it being shown on a public television station such as PBS or BBC. Faraday now has quite a range of supporting materials around the film, including bonus footage, a rich website, a leader’s guide, a study guide for participants, and a book with autobiographical contributions from scientist-believers, Test of Faith: Spiritual Journeys with Scientists. Contributors to the film and book include Francis Collins, Alister McGrath, Ard Louis, Jennifer Wiseman, Bill Newsome, John Polkinghorne, Alasdair Coles, Rosalind Picard, and John Bryant.
From the Dust
Just this year, BioLogos partnered with Highway Media to produce a new documentary, From the Dust: Conversations in Creation. This film is just over an hour long, and is divided into four sections of similar length: “Faith and Science,” “Divinely Inspired,” “The Conversation,” and “Truly Human.” Some early clips from the film (prior to the final round of editing) and additional footage can be found in the multimedia resources section of the BioLogos website, and the trailer is above. From the Dust has a firm focus on Genesis, creation, and evolution, probably the area of the most significant tension in our society today related to science and faith. Unlike Test of Faith, there is no narrative voice in From the Dust, and contrasting views are held in tension. It also focuses on theology more than science, so From the Dust may be a better choice than Test of Faith for some groups of Christians. While the Test of Faith film has a very modern and logical structure to it, From the Dust has more of a personal and emotional feel, and you feel that the people in the film are talking with you more than just talking to you. You see the cost that divisive positions on creation and evolution can have on Christians, even in the college classroom. While the film has a strong leaning towards evolutionary creationism and features N. T. Wright, John Walton, John Polkinghorne, Alister McGrath, Peter Enns, Jeff Schloss and Rick Colling, there are also significant contrasting voices from Answers in Genesis and Canopy Ministries. In my opinion, From the Dust is a good choice for many churches, small group Bible studies, or Christian student groups (e.g., InterVarsity, Navigators) to use. There are fewer supporting materials around From the Dust, due both to its new release and also its more inductive approach than that of the Faraday project. In addition to bonus footage, there is a website, a list of sample discussion questions, and a group study guide that I developed.
As you decide which film to use for starting conversations and how to use it, there are several things to consider. Will you show the whole film at once, or will you spread it out over several sessions? Will you provide additional structure or just have an open discussion after each viewing? How many days do you have available? How much time at each session? What are the worldviews of your audience? What is their level of biblical, theological, and scientific knowledge? How big is the group, and what is their age? What is their willingness to do homework and their level of interest in the topic? Is this a new group specifically convened to explore science and faith issues together, or is this a preexisting group that has been doing other things together and has varying levels of commitment to this new topic? What sort of expertise does the leader of the group have, or are there multiple leaders? All of these can affect the group dynamic and may influence the choices you make.
The groups I have worked with have been Christian students from secular colleges, Christian faculty and staff from secular colleges, a small group Bible study, and a general audience. I have found that Test of Faith worked well over three weeks with my Bible study group and with the faculty and staff group, though in these exclusively Christian groups I needed to add a bit of scripture, song or prayer in those settings (as is also recommended in the Faraday materials). The film was particularly good for a 30-minute screening at the general audience event, which also featured a panel for Q&A afterwards. It could likely be used in a college classroom, too, even at a secular institution. I had been considering strategies for using Test of Faith at my church as well, until I found From the Dust.
As I began thinking about ways to use From the Dust while it was still in the final editing stages, I screened it in two parts to three of the four audiences mentioned above (not the general audience). I asked several dozen undergraduates from local InterVarsity groups to give me their responses to the film and to tell me what questions it makes them want to explore more. I did the same with the Christian faculty and staff, and with my home Bible study group. Then I assembled a six-week curriculum (plus an opening session on setting expectations and sharing my vision), primarily aimed at Christian undergraduates. My students this summer loved it so much that we followed it with three-weeks on Test of Faith! Now I keep getting asked when I’ll do it next. But I am hoping that others, even my own students, will want to lead discussion groups like this. You don’t have to be an expert to start a conversation, and sometimes being a leader is the best way to learn.
David Vosburg is an associate professor of chemistry at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California. He holds a bachelor of arts from Williams College and a doctorate from The Scripps Research Institute. His research focuses on synthetic organic chemistry, medicinal natural products, and green chemistry. He and his wife, Kate, have been actively involved with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship for almost 20 years.