Ep. 122: The Riot and the Dance of Creation
Creation was a dance (and still is in many ways), but now it’s a riot. If you didn’t already know, there’s a new nature documentary out that finally gives credit to where credit is due: God. Christian biologist, Dr. Gordon Wilson, joins us this week to talk about the film The Riot and the Dance which he narrates. We talk about the film, if animals are sinful, general revelation, and how the gospel is seen in nature.
With me today is Dr. Gordon Wilson. Gordon is a senior fellow of natural history at New St. Andrew’s College in Idaho, and among other degrees, Gordon has his PhD in environmental science and public policy from George Mason University. Anyways, it’s great to have you with us today, Gordon.
Thank you for having me, Isaac. It’s great to be here.
We start every conversation like this. Just before we jump into the subject, who are you? What are a few things you can tell us about yourself that would allow us to know you a little bit better, maybe how you came to know Jesus?
Well, I grew up in a very, very strong Christian family. My dad, after he got out of the navy which was before I was born, just 24/7 Christian. Both my mom and my dad had a great relationship. A peaceful home. Never saw any ugly fights or anything. They had disagreements, but they also resolved them peacefully. My dad, after he got out of the navy, he was an evangelist in Christian literature, so the gospel saturated the home, and good, firm discipline, good, loving discipline, and around six years old, I came under conviction after stealing my brother’s quarter, and at the dinner table, it was announced, “Doug is missing a quarter.” And I sort of twisted the story to look like I was the hero. The, “I think I know where it is.”
So, I retrieved the quarter, and then received a spanking because I was lying about it. I stole the quarter. I wasn’t just being the hero of the day and retrieving it.
But anyway, then after the spanking, received the gospel, and prayed the prayer as they say on the bottom of the basement steps which is where all of our justice was meeted out on our heine. But, that was probably about ’67, somewhere in there, 1967.
So, that’s a brief testimony, and just grew up in a wonderful, Christian home and realized that man, as I’ve grown up and met many, many Christians, some with similar backgrounds, some came to the Lord later in life and have very, very gnarly backgrounds, I’m very grateful for what I received.
That’s so good. Now, Gordon, I did some digging. It wasn’t too much digging, but I did find out that you wrote your dissertation on the eastern box turtle, so really-
One facet of it. There’s a lot to be known about the eastern box turtle, and I studied under, you could say turtle Jedi-master, Dr. Carl Ernst at George Mason, and got to work on probably one of my favourite animals in the world just because I grew up in Maryland, zero to seven years old, and so just in the woods across the street, there were box turtles, so back when I was just first developing … Well, God gave me an innate desire to … Well, just had an innate fascination with the living world, and one of the first things that hooked me was box turtles, and so when I finally got into the PhD program, later than most, this turtle biologist, and I get to work on my very favourite animal, and it was just wonderful. It was reproductive ecology, so it was looking at nesting and egg-laying, all that data.
No, that’s awesome. I love it.
Okay, so you’ve created something, Gordon, that needed to be created I think. Yes, we all loved, and we still do love BBC’s Planet Earth, but something was always missing. It was God’s credit, I think we could say.
So firstly, for those who don’t know, maybe they have no idea why I just said that, what is The Riot and the Dance, and after explaining that, why that name?
Okay, well, first of all, The Riot and the Danceis a cinematic celebration of creation in the same way that BBC and their nature documentaries are also showcasing nature. There’s no person that is given credit. It’s all time, chance, matter and energy. So, as you said, this is very different in that we are giving credit where credit is due, and that was one very clear goal. We didn’t want to have it in an apologetic film where we weren’t trying … We weren’t trying to prove the existence of God. I don’t mind those types of films. I think they’re important, but we wanted to just okay, pitch it mostly to Christians saying, okay, are you tired? Yes, we like those BBC films, but are you tired of doing Darwin detox and slogging through the narration that, jaunty as it may be, from David Attenborough? God is irrelevant in their narration. And implicit … they’re not saying, “We’re atheists.” But that is the underlying message that it all can happen by chance. So, we wanted to do something different.
And also, just to make it clear, I wasn’t the … I’ve always wanted to do something like this, but my nephew, ND Wilson, was asked by an investor to do a nature documentary. He’s a best-selling author, film-maker, and he got an outdoor imagination when he was a kid. I took him out insect collecting when he was 10, so he’s more of a shaker-mover type, and I’m little Bilbo Baggins in my hobbit hole, teaching biology at New St. Andrew’s College, and he comes over and asks me to be the narrator. So, I wanted to give him credit for the impetus behind this, and I jumped at it, at this opportunity, very quickly.
But, why is it called The Riot and the Dance? I hope I answered the first part of the question, but The Riot and the Danceis from my textbook. I wrote a biology textbook a few years ago, and I called it that name, and Nate wanted to name the documentary the same. He liked that name, and it is supposed to capture the fact about creation, that the creation, when it was made, it was unfallen, and it was a dance. It was designed. It was choreographed by God. It was a dance.
But then when Adam sinned and plunged all of creation into … All creation fell because of Adam’s sin. He was the federal head. He was given dominion. When he sinned, everything fell, and it was cursed as it’s very clear in Genesis, and so we now … That once perfect dance has been twisted, distorted to varying degrees depending on where you look. We see predator-prey, lots of carnivory, lots of parasitism throughout the animal kingdom. It is a gnarly place, and we wanted to not just be dark about it, but we didn’t want to hide the fact that it’s not a basket of kittens out there.
And we see that. We don’t want to Disney-fy nature. BBC doesn’t, but their narrating is like, “Well this is the way creatures evolved. It was survival of the fittest. Nature red in tooth and claw.” But this is not … There’s something in us that sort of says, “That’s not right.” We sort of resigned ourselves to this world the way it is, but we know that … And we watch it in fascinated horror as the crocodile takes down a wildebeest as they’re trying to cross a river in the Serengeti, but we watch in fascinated what? Horror. It’s not something that we would say is good. It may be a little more palatable when we see just a small little salamander eat a worm or something rather than some huge beast taking down something down a little more sentient, but it’s still a gnarly place, and that’s the riot part. The Riot and the Dance. That’s to show that the once perfect dance was ruined by the fall.
Yeah. That’s good. And you know, as you say that, this maybe is a little bit of a curve ball question, but could you say that animals are in sin like we are in sin, or is that completely … Is that kind of a separate … Is that a separate thing?
Well, my nephew and I may take a little different angle on it. He says they do. I need to look at the Scripture a little more carefully. I know in the law, that when an ox gores a man, that ox was put to death.
Now, I definitely would agree that it’s all part of the fall. But when a lion kills, I’m hesitant to say it’s sin. They’re not culpable like we are because it says in the Bible, “Where there is no law, there is no sin.” And the animals have not been given the law, so they’re not culpable for their actions like.
Well, yeah, they had to be put to death if they gored a man, but whether that was a practical necessity. We got to put this ox down because he might do it again, rather than is judgment like a capital offense. So, I’m open to the other, but right now, I see it as they’re not sinning, but I may be wrong.
Right. No, that’s good. That’s interesting. Now, in the trailer of the film, Gordon, you say something quite provocative. You say that the Word of God isn’t just written on onion skin pages, but it’s living and breathing in the world around us. So, my question is, are you getting at what most theologians call special and general revelation?
So yes. Flesh this out a little bit. What exactly do you mean?
Yeah, well, we often think that … I tell my biology students that we sometimes think that biology is this realm over the secularists, and we’re studying living creatures. But if we study theology, we’re studying God. It’s like wait a minute. When we’re studying the Bible, we’re studying special revelation, God’s revealed nature to us, but it says in Roman 1:20, God’s invisible qualities, his eternal power and divine nature have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.
So, men are without excuse, and so as we study nature, we see all of the form and function from tiny worms to tiny insects to crustaceans to birds, mammals, reptiles, all of the different forms, we need to realize that that is the direct handiwork of God.
I mentioned in the film that if we were to want to know about Michael Angelo, we would study everything that he made. We don’t meet him in person, so we can’t know him directly, but we can study who he was as an artist, as a sculptor. In the same way, we study who God is by reading and studying everything that he wrote and everything that he made.
So, I would say that biology, in a broad sense, is part of theology. We’re studying God when we study nature. We’re studying God when we study astronomy. We’re studying God when we study chemistry. We’re studying God when we study geology. Everything that is, is part of God’s grand cosmic story, and some of it is gnarly, but we have to come to grips with it.
I’m reading through Lamentations and Ezekiel, and Amos, does disaster befall a city unless I, the Lord, have caused it? And it was a rhetorical question. And Job … Look at Job. Bad things happen to good people, and we need to come to grips with that that God is in control. God’s not up in heaven wringing his hands going, “Oh no. It went off the rails.” He is in control even though things have gone off the rails because of man’s rebellion. It’s nothing … Nothing is outside of God’s foreknowledge.
That’s good. That’s so good. You know, Gordon, I fear that lots of people are sort of blind to the wonders of nature even that immediately around us, the tree outside, the worms under their feet. What can you kind of say, as a biologist, as someone who you just told me that you came back from a field trip in Southern Idaho looking at different creatures. What can you say that would practically help us open our eyes to God’s wonder?
Well, there’s one talk I like to give called The Magnificence of the Mundane, and you get the elements of that in the movie. Basically, we need to look at what we see out our door, whether it’s squirrels or robins, things that are common, and we just go, “Ho hum.” Yawn. It’s so common.
Now, the reason we get that way is whatever is common, we kind of get numb to it. We don’t see the beauty and the marvel. It’s really nice to sometimes look at some of these creatures that we see sort of as blurry backgrounds in our daily lives and go on Google and pull up Google images of some of these in really high resolution and see some of the innate beauty or the intrinsic beauty of these things.
And also, just know that this was wrought by the hand of God. We like to sometimes think only the prettiest cute stuff was … We don’t always like to think that God made the bizarre and the things that are a little less attractive to us. I think we need to recalibrate our own sense of what is wonderful.
When God said, “It is very good,” at the end of the creation week, yes, it wasn’t fallen, but when he said it was very good, I think we should be very … We shouldn’t go dismissing it or writing it off as something that is undesirable, and I think that should really set our understanding of or evaluation of it. We often think that it’s got to somehow justify its existence by being practical or beautiful to us, and I’ve just always been fascinated by what most people consider less desirable creatures. Maybe it’s just the desire to be a PR man for the underdog, but there’s a lot of beauty in a lot these things that most people sort of think of as creepy, crawly.
But I’m sorting of getting off the track. You said, “How do you see it through new eyes?” I think one of the best ways is to study it, to see the details. The more you know about something, the more you appreciate it. It’s like you can look at a cathedral in Europe and go, “Well that’s a nice cathedral.” But if you took medieval architecture from a really good professor, you would see so much more, and you appreciate the cathedral so much more than if you would have if you just went there and had no understanding, no history, no architectural understanding at all. And you would say, “Well, that’s pretty, but okay, next.”
The problem is so many biologists, especially in state schools, are secular, and they’re going to just say it’s all evolution, and so we look at it and go, “Well, it’s just crafted by evolution rather than by God.” If we see it and understand it as crafted by God and then we start to learn some of the biology and some of the intricacies of it, then we can go, “Wow, this was made by God.” But if we only see it as just a frog or a worm, and we don’t … We can easily just think of it as simple, but the more detail about it we know … I’m not saying that everybody has to be a biologist, but you can learn a little bit about something as a layperson and go, “Wow. That’s cool.” And not take a test or a quiz on it. Just go … It just gives you a little bit more appreciation. The more you know, the more you appreciate it.
Love it, and that’s such a good way to answer that question.
Now the last question I have with the few minutes we have left. This is a simple question which might be bigger, but I don’t know. Do you see the gospel in nature?
Well yes. But I do think we need the Word of God to know the gospel, that Jesus is the Son of God, that he came to earth and suffered and died for our sins. We don’t get that through nature. Now, we see … As we look at nature, we see how it is ruined. Now, we can look at the secular interpretation as just that’s the way it is, but if we have a Christian biblical worldview, we see it as ruined. We see, “Okay, why is it ruined?”
Well, it’s ruined because of man’s rebellion against God. It says in Romans, “All creation was subjected to futility. All creation groans.” So, when we look around, yes. The creation is groaning, and it’s fallen. It’s cursed, and that should tell us that there’s … If God is a loving God, which he is, and he sees the plight of this ruined creation, the question comes to mind, is it going to be redeemed?
We see our sinfulness in humanity, but we also see the brokenness of nature, and we go, “Is there a solution? Is there something out there that will save us, save me from my sin? And is there something that will redeem creation?” And I think the gospel isn’t just only me and my heart. It is definitely that. It reconciles us to God, but all creation is looking forward to the redemption.
The gospel is something that will transform not only us, not only transforms our heart now, but will transform our lowly bodies when we receive our resurrection bodies, but it will also transform nature, and you get glimmers of that in Isaiah 11. “The lion will lie down with the lamb. The child will play by the hole of the cobra. No one will hurt or harm in my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” Everything will be restored. So, the gospel, yes. We see the need for the gospel in general revelation, but we need special revelation to connect the dots.
Yeah. That’s awesome. Thank you so much, Dr. Wilson.
If you’re listening, and you’re interested in what Dr. Wilson has been saying and his documentary, you can go to riotandthedance.com. There you can find trailers and information on the film. We’ll be waiting for when it comes out online and purchasing and all that kind of stuff.
Anyways, thank you so much, Gordon. I really did enjoy our conversation today.
Thank you, Isaac. Great to be here.