The God of the Cosmos

My affinity for The Amazing Race (the best reality T.V. in the history of T.V.) is the reason I missed the premier of the new Fox miniseries Cosmos. Fortunately, the absurd money I pay Time Warner Cable permits me access to the show after the fact, and I finally took the time to view it this evening. A few general thoughts about the program:

1. It was visually stunning. The live shots were beautiful but the computer animation work made it enjoyable to watch.

2. Neil deGrasse Tyson was a good choice to host. I've enjoyed watching/reading Tyson for years now. His camera presence is strong. Although I don't think his voiceovers were quite as effective, he's still an affiable personality. Unfortunately, his great sense of humor wasn't utilized in the episode.

3. Overall, it was a polite treatment of the subject. Or maybe I just have thick skin.

You see, even though I appreciated Cosmos as interesting television, there iss an agenda behind the series. Although the overt claim of the creators was that they made Cosmos to promote science, it's clear that the underlying goal was to debase religion, especially Christianity. This isn't an observation born from paranoia; if you know the backgrounds of Tyson and producer Seth McFarlane (a brilliant entertainer as well), you know it's part of their schtick. I don't slight this at all. Christians in this country have countless opportunities to proselytize and promote their views in public forums. And if Christianity can't withstand this sort of scrutiny, then it's not worth believing in anyway. But let's not fool ourselves into thinking that this is a purely objective program.

Still, there were a couple of things from the opening episode I found peculiar:

1. Cosmos emulated Christianity in the promotion of Messiah(s).

Globally, people still resonate with the person of Jesus, even if they deny his divinity. But I believe that naysayers fill this void by creating their own Christs; it's innate to our humanity to develop contenders to Jesus, elevating replacements for him by which we establish our own life philosophy. Tonight's episode, while lauding the vastness of the universe, promoted the narratives of two saviors: Carl Sagan and Giordano Bruno.

Admittedly, I am not an expert in the work of either men. Yet the way that they were presented in Cosmos displayed them as selfless rebels who gave their lives to promote the ultimate truth (a scientific gospel, if you will). In the case of Sagan, the creator of the original Cosmos series, he has become the patron saint of modern science. I'd suggest that the homage to Sagan in the newest incarnation of Cosmos surpasses mere respect. But more on Sagan later.

The focus on 16th century priest and philosopher Giordano Bruno was most interesting. Again, I'm only vaguely familiar with him, mostly for his role as a heretic of the church. I'd suggest, however, that it was his story revealed the true propoganda of the episode. Notice that the lead-in to Bruno's story began with a shot of Vatican City and featured Tyson narrating from the streets of Rome. The church was painted as a massive, villanous institution and Bruno the lowly but brave contrarian. The animations of Christian authorities (the whole narrative segment was a cartoon) displayed them as evil looking men. Now stick with me: I have no intention of defending the Inquisition here . . . or anywhere for that matter. Yet it is fascinating that when Cosmos prominently engaged Christianity in its opening episode—a show created to promote scientific pursuit—just happened to feature the darkest period of church history. That's called low-hanging fruit, friends. No harm, no foul, but it was rather lazy.

The Bruno narrative focused on his progressive views on the universe—his adoption of a Copernican view of reality where the earth wasn't the center of the universe. After repeatedly showing him being persecuted for this view, he's arrested and condemned to death. In a subtle display of truth, when Cosmos displayed the verdict against Bruno, it quickly mentioned his more controversial views, the ones that the church in his days viewed as heretical—namely, his objection to the divinity of Christ and the virginity of Mary. Again, these beliefs were obviously not worthy of his martyrdom, but his "scientific views" (put in quotations as they are widely questioned as such) were nowhere near the top of the list of chief reasons for his death.

Additionally, before showing his death, the program went as far as to show Bruno flying through the air with his arms outstretched as if on a cross (then immediately followed this view by actually showing crosses). In the end, Cosmos declared Bruno one of the first scientific martyrs, persecuted by the church for his views. My contention is that it's just not that tidy of a story. I enjoyed this article summarizing the peculiarities of featuring Bruno in this episode. By the way, my favorite quote from the article: "Bruno was a talking s**t storm, with a black belt in burning bridges."

So in the end, Cosmos lifted up these two heroes while minimizing the faith tradition of my hero. Still, Jesus got a shout-out near the end of the episode, but it was in reference to his miniscule role in the vast history of the universe. My second issue with Cosmos continued in this vein:

2. Cosmos presented faith as incompatible with science.

An interesting result from last month's Bill Nye vs. Ken Ham debate was the emergence of a large number of Bible-believing Christians who wanted nothing to do with young earth creationism. The view is that it's just not a biblical issue and it's not worth staking a claim on. Yet this more progressive view—one where Christians won't dismiss science—is a non-sequitur for the secular community. They don't appreciate a Christianity that responds well to science since it still establishes a Creator over the cosmos. And this polemic was visible throughout the episode as well.

The science presented in Cosmos was a winner-take-all proposition. To wit,

  • Science is Galileo developing an accurate view of the universe while peering through the telescope.
  • Science is the means by which man was able to travel to the moon.
  • And science is the Big Bang and a happenstance beginning to the universe.

And if you reject the cosmological view of science, then you reject all the other scientific discoveries and the advancement of humanity the accompanied it. It was capped at the end of the episode with the elevation of the accomplishments of Sagan. The viewer was urged to look at the brilliance of Sagan's accomplishments and then reminded that THIS is how HE viewed the universe.

There's no place for faith here.

And this is where Cosmos fails: it co-opts the question, developing an indivisible link between science and cosmology: the study of origins. The thing is, science isn't truly capable of grappling fully with the issue because it's a question of metaphysics. But inevitable, all questions lead back to cosmology: who did we get here and what does life mean? Everyone is forced to grapple with the question and there's no chance for science to opt out.

So theories/beliefs are established as fact and there is no room for doubt. And questioning scientific authority will out you as a heretic and there's a penalty.

It's a familar story, eh?

I'm not a scientist. I'm a theologian. But that doesn't disqualify me from discussing issues of cosmology. In fact, it probably gives me a better perspective from which to address this.

So even though I'm an orthodox Christian pastor, I'm still very interested in watching this program and will continue to do so in the future. And if you're a Christian who disagrees with the worldview, you should still watch the program as well. In the same way that agnostics deconstruct your faith (and you should listen to those objections and respond thoughtfully), you need to learn how to dissect they biases behind this kind of evangelicalism.

There's a way for believers to disagree respectfully while leaving room for further conversation. And maybe Cosmos is the perfect conversational starting point.