HBO’s ‘Questioning Darwin’ documentary includes Akron-area questioners

By Rich Heldenfels
Beacon Journal popular culture writer

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British scientist Charles Robert Darwin, founder of the theory for the evolution of life. (AP Photo, File)

The differences between evolution and divine creation are regularly highlighted, not only in national conversations but in local ones.

A debate between scientist and TV personality Bill Nye and Ken Ham of the Creation Museum has been actively discussed, especially online. The Chapel in Akron has been sponsoring a weekly series of talks under the heading “Is belief in God logical?” which has included several dealing with evolution, such as a Feb. 27 talk, The Harm that Darwinism Has Caused in Society.

National and local concerns intersect in Questioning Darwin, a new documentary currently showing on HBO; the next telecast is at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday. But the local reaction was somewhat mixed.

The film draws on people from different sides of the debate, and from different locations, one of which is the Akron area. Hudson-based megachurch Christ Community Chapel is prominently featured on the creationist side, and interviews include its lead pastor, Joe Coffey, and Tim Schofield, executive director of ministry teams.

Antony Thomas, a documentary maker who has done work for Frontline and America Undercover, uses the film to trace the development of Darwin’s beliefs, including his religious faith, and counterposes those with people who reject Darwin, at least on the issue of the origin of man.

It’s an issue where reactions can be complex not only across the divide but within the sides. For example, people who believe in creationism in the broad sense may disagree on the details. Ham, also interviewed in Questioning Darwin, is among those believing the Earth is about 6,000 years old. Coffey said he does not personally accept this “young Earth” idea but “our church doesn’t have an official stance.”

But Thomas wanted people to have a fair hearing.

“I am so sick of films that just go in there to try to make fun of people,” he said, adding later that “we’re all Christians.”

Besides quoting scientists and authorities on Darwin, Thomas “wanted to find the most articulate, the most challenging people who are creationists. I would put Pastor Joe Coffey in that category. He asked questions that even Darwin couldn’t answer.”

Christ Community also gave him a wider socioeconomic reach for the documentary.

“What I wanted to do, when I started the basic research for this film, was to meet Bible-believing Christians across a huge social range,” Thomas said in a telephone interview on Monday. Besides studying working-class churches, he found Christ Community Chapel “was a church that was hugely successful, with CEOs and medical doctors and so forth, and I decided that was also a level I should reach. … And, then when I did the research and discovered the social work that they did [such as with Haven of Rest] … I thought that was excellent and that I should follow through on that.”

Coffey, meanwhile, thought that participating “might be a good thing. As Antony and I talked about this project, I decided to go ahead and take a chance.”

Darwin’s journey

Thomas said he “absolutely explained” to people what he was doing, and he would chart Darwin’s journey away from Christianity, not only in his scientific research but in such emotionally devastating events as the death of his daughter. That led him to ask not only “Is it possible to be a Christian in the fullest sense and believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution?” but “How do you deal with suffering?”

In segments like one dealing with a devout family’s response to its own trauma, and in interviews, Thomas aimed for a respectful presentation of people, even if they are speaking about a profound disagreement.

“They raised questions,” he said of the local experience. “They raised big questions. There was so much there. I have one piece of Joe Coffey — I won’t get the quote exactly — but [Coffey asks] if we are created in this random way, where does morality come from? … All the things in the human personality that are positive in the human personality, where do they come from?”

Haven of Rest offers one example of Christians taking up others’ burdens. Questioning Darwin shows activities there and interviews Rose Rose, who oversees community and public relations for the homeless-assistance organization.

Interview preparation

These discussions unfolded during two visits by Thomas to the Akron area. The first was for research, but included interviews with some people. The interviews were transcribed to aid Thomas in planning, and gave the people he was talking to an awareness of where he would be going during his second, 2½-week visit with a camera crew. The earlier talks, he said, made sure people “know where I am, and what I’ll be asking them, and have time to think about it. I don’t give them sort of prepared questions, but they know the area.”

Rose thought the program “leaned a little bit more toward evolution” but that creationism had its say.

Coffey, meanwhile, had not seen Questioning Darwin when interviewed on Monday morning. He said the staff at Christ Community had seen it and had been disappointed.

The church has not promoted its involvement in Questioning Darwin on its website. And Schofield said by email that, “After discussing it, we’ve decided not to comment on the documentary.”

Coffey said the staff “thought it was OK. … We had hoped that the focus would be a little different than it was.”

“There are four basic questions of existence that are all tied together: Where did we come from, where are we going, why are we here, and how shall we live? The great thing about what we believe is that all four of those questions hang together and there are rather elegant answers,” while Darwinism, in Coffey’s view, offers less satisfying ones.

“My understanding is he treated our church very fairly,” he said, and on balance “it was probably a useful experience. The thing we hoped would happen is that it would show us as more thoughtful and educated.”

Criticisms of film

But there were concerns among the Christ Community staff that portrayals of other churches in the film “seemed the way people usually perceive people who believe in creationism,” Coffey said. He singled out a pastor from another church saying he would accept that 2 plus 2 equals 5, if that was what the Bible said.

“That’s exactly the kind of thing that we would not want to say,” Coffey said.

“I think Darwin presented a plausible explanation for people who believe in naturalism as a philosophy,” Coffey added. “Which is fine. We believe that we have a lot of evidence that supports what we would call super-naturalism. … I don’t think science falls on one side or the other. Science is a tool, but it’s used by philosophies to support the philosophy.”

“God gave us a sense of curiosity,” Rose said. “And I think he expects us to use it. I also think it’s interesting when science searches and searches for answers and many times throughout recent history they’ve come across proof that the Bible was accurate all along. So it doesn’t frighten me too much, as it does some people. I think the more they dig into it, I think they’ll see … there is a missing link.”

Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online blog, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or rheldenfels@thebeaconjournal.com.


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