Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey





Paul Asay
Steven Isaac

TV Series Review

Say you’re reading this at your computer, and there’s a warm, homemade chocolate chip cookie on a plate beside you. Nice, right? But how would you say that cookie came to be?

Some might talk about the flour and milk and sugar inside each one, mixed just so. They would probably mention the baking it underwent in an oven at a precise temperature for a set time. That is how that cookie came to be, they might say. And they would, of course, be right.

Others might simply say, “My Aunt Edna made them for me.” Or my daughter or husband or someone else who had been so kind. And they would also be right.

When I think of the sometimes contentious conflux of faith and science, that’s what I see. I see the oven in which the universe rose, and I see the Baker, or Creator behind it all. The conflict we so often feel between the two is simply the result of us not fully understanding how the appliance operated (and science, by its own admission, is constantly redefining itself) or fully understanding God (because God is inherently beyond our mortal comprehension).

Fox’s 13-episode documentary Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, then, is a show that’s all about the oven. Nothing about the Baker who put the cookies in it. And creationists will also have reason to push back against the baking temperature and time settings.

All of this is, perhaps, to be expected. Cosmos, a reboot of sorts of Carl Sagan’s famous PBS series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, is a science show, after all—and science, by its nature, is not prone to dabble in the supernatural. Narrated by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of New York City’s Hayden Planetarium, Cosmos is a grounded layman’s exploration of this wondrous universe of ours. It is science as understood and disseminated by the modern mainline scientific establishment.

Tyson is a genial and gracious host who takes us, via CGI spaceship, around the world, around the galaxy and through time itself. In animated snippets, viewers see critical moments in science history, when thinkers made important discoveries or crucial connections. Through beautiful computer renderings, we witness the birth of supernovas, the dance of atoms and a whole host of weird and wild things. There is little explicit content here. There is no sex (though there are hints of lust in the animated stories), little violence (though the occasional animated character dies). Foul language is restrained to very mild profanities.

But in the midst of this journey, audiences are given a litany of scientific “facts” that sidestep the idea of a Creator and will exclude Creationists. Evolution and an almost infinitely ancient universe is a given.

Cosmos is meant to inspire—but in a solely secular-scientific way. It marvels (using our earlier analogy) at the workings of the oven … its switches, its knobs, its gas-fired power … while disregarding (or dismissing) what we Christians would say is the most inspirational aspect of the cookie: the skill and care of the Baker.

It’s not that the show ignores religion. But it doesn’t embrace it. Sometimes it’s patronizing, gazing back at the ancients who worshipped the sun. Other times it’s critical. Always there’s an undercurrent of we know better now.

An example: In the premiere episode, Tyson dives into the history of Giordano Bruno—a Catholic friar who had the audacity to suggest that the sun was just an ordinary star and that the universe was infinite. We’re told that that theory threw him into conflict with the era’s “thought police,” the Catholic Church, and that he was eventually burned at the stake for heresy.

But Corey S. Powell, writing for the science publication Discover, enumerates several instances where Cosmos misleads its viewers on Bruno’s story, whose list of heresies apparently goes well past just scientific musings (most of which had, incidentally, already been voiced without the Church bringing out the torches). As David Sessions at The Daily Beast points out, “What Cosmos doesn’t mention is that Bruno’s conflict with the Catholic Church was theological, not scientific, even if it did involve his wild—and occasionally correct—guesses about the universe.”

Cosmos certainly likes its edgy outsiders—those willing to question conventional wisdom and the “thought police.” But maybe now it’s the one squelching the free flow of ideas. “I was struck in the first episode where [Tyson] talked about science and how, you know, all ideas are discussed, you know, everything is up for discussion,” said former college professor Danny Faulkner on The Janet Mefford Show. (Faulkner taught astronomy for more than 25 years at the University of South Carolina Lancaster before he joined Answers in Genesis.) “It’s all on the table—and I thought to myself, ‘No, consideration of special creation is definitely not open for discussion, it would seem.'”

In an interview on CNN, Tyson himself rejected the idea that scientists like Faulkner should have their views represented on the show. “You don’t talk about the spherical Earth with NASA and then say Let’s give equal time to the flat Earthers. Plus, science is not there for you to cherry pick.”

“The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it, all right?” he adds. “I guess you can decide whether or not to believe in it, but that doesn’t change the reality of an emergent scientific truth.”

Replace the word science with the word God, and it sounds very much like something a Christian might say to an unbelieving associate, does it not?

Cosmos is an interesting, occasionally beautiful bit of entertainment from which you can glean certain truths. But it has faith in just one thing: itself.

Episode Reviews

Cosmos-A-Spacetime-Odyssey: 4-27-2014

“Sisters of the Sun”

Tyson takes us on a tour as wide as the universe, explaining how stars are born, when they were born (some hundreds of billions of years ago) and what can happen to them when they die. He mentions that many stars have planets rotating around them, and that “perhaps some of them nurture the evolution of life and intelligence.” He runs through a handful of myths associated with stars (Greek- and American Indian-based). The Pleiades, Tyson says, inspired the pagan holiday of Samhain, which later morphed into Halloween.

We get mini-lessons on a number of lesser-known women who made a major impact on the science of astronomy, despite the fact that the field was so dominated by men. One of them immigrated to the U.S. because she was forbidden from even working in the field in her native England.

The only real “content” to report is that Tyson takes a sip of wine.

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Paul Asay
Paul Asay

Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.

Steven Isaac

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