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Of God and science: Aronofsky's 'Noah' makes peace with both

Published: Friday, Aug. 1 2014 11:15 p.m. MDT

Updated: Monday, Aug. 4 2014 3:54 p.m. MDT

This image released by Paramount Pictures shows Russell Crowe in a scene from "Noah."

Niko Tavernise, Associated Press

July 29 marked the release of Darron Aronofsky's controversial biblical epic "Noah" on DVD. While the film received mixed reviews from believers and atheists alike, one scene in particular — the film's depiction of the creation — piqued some interest in both circles.

"The construction of the universe nods to the Big Bang theory and shows Darwinian evolution from fish to primates through single picture clips that simply blow the mind," The Huffington Post's Ryan Kristobak wrote in reaction to a clip of the scene.

But the scene's striking visuals aren't the only thing that got people talking. Aronofsky's telling of the creation combined the Darwinian visuals with Russell Crowe's somber voice reciting a creation narrative similar to that found in Genesis. The end result is a visualization of what theologians typically call theistic evolution.

What is theistic evolution?

Theistic evolution is the belief that the creation of life, as told in various religious texts, was driven by both the Will and Power of God and natural selection.

Not to be confused with creationism or intelligent design, which both argue that natural selection cannot explain the creation of man or the Earth, theistic evolution generally accepts the scientific theory of evolution as the means by which God created life, though not all accept every part of Darwin’s theories equally.

While many aspects of Aronofsky's "Noah" were controversial to believers, the depiction of such a controversial doctrine was particularly worrisome to some.

In a guest post at Christianity Today, Dr. Jerry Johnson, president of the National Religious Broadcasters, wrote in a review of the film that "many conservative evangelicals, like me, believe that a straightforward reading of the biblical text indicates that new 'kinds' of life were specially created, not evolved.

"If you agree with this view, this scene may rub you the wrong way."

And as it turns out, many Americans do agree with that view. According to the most recent Gallup data, 42 percent of Americans believe in the "creationist view of human origins." Compared to 19 percent who believe that evolution was the only force in the creation of the human race.

The same Gallup poll, however, shows that 31 percent of Americans believe in a somewhat middle ground, that "human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process."

While much attention is given to the debates between creationists and strict evolutionists, due in part to the rise of "new atheist" writers such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, the debate between strict creationists and those who believe in theistic evolution has been an important theological debate since the moment Darwin's research gained popularity.

An evolving reaction

As Ronald L. Numbers notes in his book "Darwinism Comes to America," many religious scientists of the 19th century found it easy to incorporate Darwin's theories into their faith.

"I have found no evidence in either biographical or autobiographical accounts that a single one of these men severed his religious ties as a direct result of his encounter with Darwinism," he wrote while describing his research into 19th century naturalists. These scientists did, according to Numbers, reshape how they understood God's relationship with nature. Human beings, for many of these religious naturalists, became "products of divinely ordained natural laws."

According to Numbers, the introduction of Darwinian ideas into the minds of religious scientists was "nonrevolutionary."

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