Thursday, October 1, 2009

Towards a Theology of National Geographic: Reflections on Nature Television Programming

I must confess I am one of those people who find nature TV shows fascinating. Not merely interesting; full-on gripping. My wife (who is generally patient with me in these matters) has been known to say things like “another hour of lions? We get it, they kill antelope.”, “how much can you watch about continental drift?” and “so the whole show is about schools of tuna?” Forget so called “reality” TV, give me the original reality TV- the Discovery Channel. Perhaps it’s because nature shows were a point of family connection growing up, or maybe it’s my love for the outdoors, or possibly that I’m a (closet?) amateur zoologist, but a good nature show will stick with me for days. Hey, did you know that 80% of nitrogen in the costal Pacific Northwest rainforests are from Salmon corpses, left after swimming upstream to spawn and then dying?!?!

Theology has much to say to nature programming- more on that shortly. First, some reflections on the genre.

Nature Shows as Anti-Television

Nature television is in some ways anti-television, a network executive’s nightmare. Not loud, flashy, or over the top, it’s not likely to give pause to the average channel surfer, even if Sigourney Weaver or Morgan Freeman are enlisted to provide narration. Informative content often similar to that given in a classroom or museum, long breaks between bits of voiceover narration, and a slow pace are not for the short of attention span. Think about it: can you name a nature program on a major network? With the notable exception of the BBC, most nature programming has been sequestered to (mostly minor) cable television networks and public broadcasting (at least this is the case in the States, perhaps things are different in the UK; lacking a television set here, I’m in no position to make assessment).

The Genre

Nature shows are familiar. The genre of nature programming is known for several things, including stunning shots of sweeping landscapes scored by orchestral crescendos and cymbal rushes, a seeming obsession with predation, and making teenagers uncomfortable and somewhat giggly during scenes of animal mating behavior (those videos in middle school biology class were so awkward!). Not only is it familiar to most of us, it is also consistent. After 25+ plus years of watching nature TV, it seems to me that the genre has been stable and changes have been small and slow in coming (although the Planet Earth series has recently raised quality expectations substantially). Shark Week, while very cool, was hardly a revolution.

Annoyances with the Genre

Within this largely static genre, two staple themes have always agitated me. First, no respectable nature show would be without at least a few appeals, usually vague and in the form of personification, to the explanatory power of evolution (usually something like, “evolution has given this bird a wonderful gift—an elongated beak, to eat grubs buried in the bark.”) Occasionally the words “designed” or “creature” make an appearance, but those are just manners of speaking, not to be taken seriously or at face value. Sometimes the ambiguous “mother nature” is mentioned, but again only as a metaphor for evolution. I’ll avoid an excursion into creation vs. evolution debates, but I can at least say that nature television almost uniformly assumes Naturalism and atheistic evolution, not even giving a passing mention to the possibility of other explanations. (Usually Naturalism is an over-invocation; micro-evolution or Theistic evolution could explain the data presented just as well, if not better. Interestingly, the enjoyability and coherence of any given program usually has little to no dependence on those ideologies- and they are fundamentally just that: worldview ideologies trying to masquerade as fact. But I digress.) None of this is surprising, but certainly frustrating. (I like to think) my annoyance does not stem from a fundamentalist kneejerk against any and all understandings of evolution but rather the attempt to disguise the worldview of Naturalism as “objective science.” No one operates without a worldview framework in place; no one has a view from nowhere.

My second annoyance is related to the first, so I’ll keep it short(er). There is a seemingly concerted effort to accentuate similarities and iron over differences between animals and humans. It is undeniable that higher-level mammals and humans share much in common, especially regarding social behavior. Actually, theologically we ought not be surprised by such similarity between humanity and the rest of creation (see below). But watching nature shows one can easily get the impression that philosophy, morality, theology, art—all the humanities, almost—are amusing but superfluous to a proper account of the world, which can only be given by the naturalist. I remember this annoyance first surfacing as a young boy watching African wildlife get drunk in “Animals Are Beautiful People” (the title says it all, doesn’t it). They eat fruit that ferments in their stomachs, stumble around comically, sleep it off, and then are hung over the next day, all humorously set to ragtime music. As funny as it was, even as a young boy I remember thinking, “so wait, this film is saying people are nothing more than slightly more evolved animals?”

Some Theological Reflections

Despite its efforts to propagate Naturalism, theology has much to say to nature programming and, I would argue, these shows often fail to completely repress elements of the Christian worldview. Quite frankly, the ‘glory-chargedness’ of our world is inescapable (although not insuppressible- Rom. 1:18-32). Ours is a world where the glory, goodness, beauty and wisdom of the Creator are manifestly evident—at least to those with the eyes to see—and this is particularly so when it comes to the natural world. I love to learn about things like rivers in underground caves in Papua New Guinea or deep sea creatures with chemically illuminated photophores because doing so enriches my understanding of the world as chosen, designed, created, and loved by God (Genesis 1 repeatedly states, “And God saw that it was good”).

While stunning mountain landscapes and roaring ocean tides often come mind when attempting to ponder and appreciate creation, we do ourselves a disservice if we fail to get beyond stereotypes. The glory and beauty of the Creator are reflected in things like the complexity and harmony of the human circulatory system and the interdependence of nutrient-rich oceans currents and humpback whales just as much as it is displayed in, say, a picturesque sunset. Let us always take care not make a caricature of the work of His hands.

Further, the remarkable complexity and beauty of our world is not “out there” in nature; it’s not as if there is “us” and then there is nature, but rather both nature and we are parts of the whole of creation, the whole cosmos. From the creation accounts in Genesis we rightly conclude that humanity is the pinnacle of creation, not the demigods over creation (Gen. 1:26-27). Such an understanding is the beginnings of the proper foundation for what we might call a biblical environmentalism—one that has theological motives rather than being driven by politically leveraged guilt or pure self-interest.

Nature programming is attractive because it ushers us into pondering the beauty and majesty of our world. And yet there is a discordance between the Naturalism underlying much of the programming and the self conscious appeals to ‘the wonder of it all’. Talk of beauty, majesty and wonder is empty and hallow on Naturalism, but rich and meaningful on the Christian worldview. Put bluntly, Naturalism’s explanations of truth, beauty, wonder, etc. as byproducts of the evolutionary preference for survival are empty, cheap and lacking in substance (and in Naturalism even the preference itself is arbitrary). If Naturalism is true then the beauty of nature is meaningless. The Naturalism operative in nature programming is cashing on borrowed capital here, unknowingly smuggling in through the back door God’s beauty and wonder as reflected in creation. Whether one acknowledges it or not, we find the natural world beautiful because God is beautiful. Creation is only beautiful, wonderful, etc. derivatively, in virtue of being the creation of the One who is beauty, goodness, and truth.

Yet despite the beauty and glory of our world, it is undeniably broken. Ecosystems are fragile and don’t always work well, even apart from human influence, predation means that nature is often gruesome and violent; one of the incomprehensible horrors of sin is that humanity’s wrongdoing has tainted all of creation. The Christian hope for the world is one of redemption in the person of Jesus Christ, a redemption that, like the fall, starts with humanity but includes all of creation (Rom. 8:18-25).

One of the most significant ‘take-aways’ from nature programming is how dependent we are on the natural world, how very little we understand about it, and how uncontrollable it is (we cannot control but we can certainly destroy!). Yet again, creation here functions as a mere shadow of God: humanity’s dependence on creation is ultimately a dependence on the good providence of the Creator. If we can’t control, say, the rains we need for crops, how much more are we dependent on the sovereign Lord God, in whom “we live and move and have our being”? (Acts 17:28)

Finally, I’ll close as most nature shows do: with a charge for change. Most appeals to conservation in nature programming are subtle and often emotional, usually appearing briefly at the conclusion, frequently in the form of “if you don’t want to lose what you’ve just seen, we’d better get our act together.” Conservation and preservation are worthwhile and important, and this is especially the case for the Christian, who is an agent of grace and redemption in the world. Yet we tend to write off environmental issues in evangelical circles (at least in N. America), which is a shame, because the Christian voice in environmental discussions is a unique and desperately needed one: Christians understand the full depth and pervasiveness of humanity’s condition in sin—so often downplayed in those discussions, much to the detriment of us all. If anyone has the right motivation for being an environmentalist, certainly it’s the Christian.