Searching the Heavens for Signs of Faith at the Fiske Fulldome Film Festival

I recently attend the Fiske Fulldome Film Festival at the University of Colorado at Boulder. A fulldome film is a film that is intended to be viewed in a dome environment where the screen encompasses 180 degrees of your field of vision. You typically watch these films while sitting reclined and staring up at the ceiling. From a purely visual perspective, the forty-four fulldome features and short films we watched over the three days of the festival are some of the most creative and awe-inspiring cinematic works I’ve ever seen.

Almost all fulldome theaters are planetariums, and almost all films produced for the fulldome environment are planetarium shows about astronomy. I did see five films that weren’t focused on astronomy—sort of six, but the sixth was a series of amusement park rides located throughout the galaxy, so there was no science, but it was still “spacey”—and only two of those weren’t focused on other sciences.

So, what was a representative of a seminary doing at a film festival devoted to the most cutting-edge, immersive, and awe-inspiring way to communicate current scientific beliefs about the origin, progress, current state, and destiny of the universe? Aren’t Science and Religion at odds over those things? And what do the Arts have to do with any of it?

In this article, I’m going to make the case that fulldome films at planetariums deserve the attention of Christians everywhere and that we ought to watch them with open minds and gracious spirits. The story most often told in these fulldome films is important, and Christians have much to offer to this scientific conversation.

The Longest NightThe Story

If the work of Science is the act of exploring by observation and experimentation all that is, and if work of Art is the act of expressing creatively both what we have learned and the questions we yet have about all that is, then when we gather around those works of Art to sit in awe of what Science has learned and to celebrate the majesty and complexity of all that is and to spur each other onward to further exploration and expression, that is a Religious gathering. Religion is simply the belief in and reverence for a power that determines the nature and development of all that is. The Fiske Fulldome Film Festival was the most theologically-rich film festival I’ve ever attended.

Throughout the festival, I saw the same story told over and over and over again in delightfully creative, overwhelmingly cinematic ways. The story goes like this:

In the beginning, there was something. Out of that something, burst everything. At first, everything was as simple as could be. Those simple bits were drawn together by a force we call “gravity” which we don’t entirely understand. Those drawn together bits began to arrange themselves into more and more complex structures. Almost always, they were blown apart again. Miraculously, some of those increasingly complex bits found each other in the vastness and were able to shield each other from the continuing blasts.

The Earth formed, and on it, those simple bits were well-enough protected to be able to continue to arrange themselves in even more complex structures that could reproduce themselves and grow in strength and intelligence. Every so often, these complex things made a mistake or, by chance, a cataclysm occurred, and almost all life was destroyed. But the things that survived were better off for it, and Life continued to develop.

Eventually, after the land and seas were separated, after the sun and moon began their dance across the sky, after the weather patterns emerged, and after the bugs and the fish and the birds and the amphibians and the reptiles and the other mammals began swimming and flying and crawling over the Earth, at the end of all this complexity that the first big BOOM created, humans appeared. Humans were different than the rest, because humans asked questions about why and how they were here and how and why they were supposed to continue being here. Some of their answers to those questions helped everything else. Other answers hurt everything else. If humans aren’t careful, they might destroy everything. If they are careful, they might discover more than they ever dreamed. Humans, though separated from all that is by their awareness of all that is, are intimately part of all that is and always will be.

Now, please note two important things about this story:

1) The most common phrase included in the narration that supported these films is, “Scientists believe.”

Though supported in part by observed fact, this story is ultimately a matter of belief, a statement of faith. Scientists themselves readily admit this. Often, we see believers in the “Big Bang Theory” depicted as stubborn dogmatists, arrogantly deaf to the claims made by others concerning the cosmology of all things. Christians are often depicted the same way. Neither sweeping depiction is fair. Many scientists and Christians admit they are taking what they believe about the universe on faith and acting accordingly. Faith is a vessel of peaceful uncertainty, and it’s a boat we share.

Ancient Light: ArcheoAstronomy of the Southwest2) There is room for the presence and activity of God in that story.

Many current Christians would read that story and see it as opposing the story of Creation as recorded in the Bible, but historically, few Christians would read it that way. The strictly literal interpretation of the Bible is a relatively recent phenomenon, and it is a way of reading the Bible that arose as a reaction against the kind of scientific thinking featured in that story. That’s important. The science came first. Biblical literalism came later.

The people who first began espousing Biblical literalism did so because people were questioning the authority of the church, not because people were questioning the authority of the Bible. At the time, church power and political power were all enmeshed, and both were being used to subjugate the masses. These powerful religious/political elite used the words of the Bible as a way to establish their right to rule, so to break the power of the elites, people began to challenge the way the Bible was being used by those elites. This was during the Scientific Revolution, so the method of challenge was scientific. In an attempt to preserve the authority of the Bible, well-meaning but short-sighted people began to try to prove the Bible scientifically too and chalked everything that couldn’t be proven that way up to the “power of God.”

Prior to this, almost all Christians understood that the various parts of the Bible were meant to be read in accordance with their respective literary forms. Myths were to be read as myths, poetry as poetry, history as history, gospel as gospel, apocalypse as apocalypse, etc. So, the creation narratives in Genesis could be read as poetic or mythological explanations of how the world came to be. The important part of the story wasn’t the literal facts. Rather, it was the overall message that stood in contrast with the other Creation Myths being told by other societies.

Other societies believed that the universe was created out of war, murder, or strife, that humans were little more than afterthoughts or slaves of dastardly gods, and that the destiny of all things was destruction. Christians and their Jewish forebears claimed God made the universe out of love, set humanity apart from the rest of creation as caretakers of it, and destined all of creation for beautiful completion. The mechanics of God’s creative activity in the Genesis story were read as a kind of poetry. The actual physics of God’s work was up for discovery.

There are Christians today who allow the scientific explanation of the universe’s creation and development and would only add that God is at the back of, intimately involved in, and guarantees it all. Science only describes the mechanics of the universe. It does not make claims about the Divine Engineer behind it all.

Journey to a Billion SunsWhere Are We?

I find it very sad that many Christians have, since the time of Galileo, aligned themselves in opposition to Science. One film screened during the festival was called Journey to a Billion Suns from Stargarten, a German fulldome film production studio. It was one of my favorite films of the festival, because it did a great job balancing the science with the historical context out of which the science came. As such, Journey to a Billion Suns includes a history of the ways cultures have interacted with the stars and what they believed about them, but the history stops with Galileo and never mentions Christianity at all. The film side-steps the controversy. The ancient Egyptians, ancient Greeks, the Aboriginal peoples of Australia, the Native Peoples of North America, and even the pre-agricultural cave painters had a spot on the dome during the festival. Christians weren’t included at all.

Maybe that’s okay. Maybe we don’t want to be included with other “superstitious” ways of thinking. On the other hand, where are we?

The festival also featured an entire fulldome feature devoted to putting the audience right in the middle of the historical development of Islam. Deen Al Qayyima, commissioned by the Sharija Centre for Astronomy and Space Sciences and produced by the impressively talented folk at NSC Creative, tells the story of Islam beginning with the creation of the universe through the death of the Prophet. The filmmakers took special care to mind the traditions of Islam, including finding a creative way around not being able to depict the Prophet. Where is the Christian equivalent?

Deen Al QayyimaWe Are There, Or At Least We Could Be

I would like to argue that the legacy of Christian thought was there at the festival even if other contemporary Christians were not.

Journey to a Billion Suns stopped talking about world religions when it started talking about Galileo. Galileo was a Christian. So was Copernicus, Kepler, and even Isaac Newton claimed the Christian faith (though his particular beliefs were hardly orthodox). It is not Science that has abandoned Christianity. We have abandoned Science. We ostracized our greatest scientific minds, but they continued to do what God made them to do – look to the Heavens to read the handwriting of God. The more they read, the more in awe of God they became.

We need to follow their example, to learn to see the majesty of creation with their eyes. We need to celebrate Galileo and all the scientists who have studied in his wake. The Vatican apologized to Galileo in 1992. We Protestant Christians need to shoulder our torches as well. We also need to relearn to read the Bible better, not defensively but curiously, with one eye on the page and the other pressed to a telescope to read God’s words in both places. If we grew up in a culture that dismissed modern science entirely, we’ve got some catching up to do. Go to the nearest planetarium, buy a ticket to the fulldome show, and sit in awe of what humanity has discovered about the mechanics governing God’s good universe.

Leo and ArtPostscript – A Call for Filmmakers Who are Christians to Consider the Fulldome Format

Fulldome cinema accomplishes at least one thing better than any other cinematic format I know. Because the dome encompasses your field of vision, there is no frame, so there is no edge to the image and therefore no boundary between the cinematic reality and actual reality. The fulldome cinematic reality is absolute. While you are watching a fulldome film, you are in its world. It is not in yours. Fulldome films show you a different way of seeing the world by taking over your eyes.

During the festival, I also got to see a film called Samskara that featured extensive Hindu imagery. The film itself was astounding, even if the particular imagery featured conflicted with my Christian faith. In Samskara, I saw the power of the fulldome format to immerse the viewer not just in the outer reaches of the physical universe but in another spiritual universe entirely. Another film, Leo and Art, a charming film about the history of art and how art has frequently overlapped with science considers Leonardo Da Vinci in depth, and ends by taking us inside Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” Leo and Art dramatically demonstrates the genius of these men but makes no mention of their faith and how essential it is to understanding their art.

What do we have to say cinematically about the formation of the stars and planets, the origin of life, and humanity’s responsibility to it all? How might our faith and spirituality be respectfully and faithfully visualized in this overwhelming film format? These are worthwhile questions in part because of the effectiveness of this format and in part because of the thirst for good content in this format. The distribution network is manageable, the need for content is great, and films from a Christian perspective that honor the scientific community would be unique.