The Artistry of the Cosmos

Editor’s Note – Our theme this week is focused on how the Bible informs the liberal arts tradition in higher education. Students have been asked to consider how their present and future studies can be better understood in light of Scripture. Since Jesus upholds the universe by the word of His power, as Christians, we can confidently seek to better understand the world around us from a biblical point of view. We hope these articles will give you some encouragement and food for thought as you think about high school or college in the coming years.

Cosmos is back. The successful PBS television series from the early 80s hosted by the late astronomer Dr. Carl Sagan has been refashioned and has found new life Sunday nights on Fox. Hosted by popular astrophysicist Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the new Cosmos includes a stunning visual feast of spectacular artistic renderings of the heavens as well as an elegiacally melodious musical score. The locations through which Dr. deGrasse Tyson strolls as he tells the story of our universe are equally impressive. Following in the footsteps of the late Dr. Sagan, the new Cosmos crew take viewers on a pleasurable stroll through the ruins of ancient Rome, and a tranquil vineyard in the Italian countryside, just to name a few. Tyson spins tales of our cosmic origins around a campfire near the Pyramids at Giza and while surrounded with breathtaking vistas of Grand Canyon.

A sublime convergence of the heavens and the earth.

But be on your guard.

While Carl Sagan’s initial cosmic integration of heaven and earth, “a personal journey” as the first series was subtitled, was brought into my living room through the medium of television, forever captivating my childlike wonder with the stars, there is much I didn’t understand as a child and much about which a Christian should be aware. While Sagan could bring the universe down to earth and explain its significance in a way that no other science text book or astronomer of his day could, his scientific materialism denied the Creator.

Neil deGrasse Tyson also seems to have the same knack of being able to put the complex and unimaginable aspects of astrophysics into a vivid and compelling visual narrative we all can enjoy. But he too espouses Sagan’s godless materialism.

While the new Cosmos is an enjoyable visual experience, beware the subtle emotive appeals which lie just below the surface; the soft music, the stunning images, the pastoral scenery in which Tyson tell us of our ancestry – all of which encourage us to accept the arguments on an emotive level. Materialistic causality sans a Creator is never more attractive than through the visual and auditory medium of television and entertainment. As you watch Cosmos, you might want to ask yourself why staunch empirical scientism is invoking the muses (music, art, myth, aesthetics) to sustain its claims about the origins and nature of our universe in the first place. Enjoy, but be on your guard.

Just recently, I’d watched one of the new Cosmos episodes entitled Sisters of the Sun. The writers did a masterful job of combining the mythical stories of the “sister” stars in the Pleiades with the stories of some of the early women astronomers in the late 1800s, early 1900s who helped catalogue and study the light emitted from stars.

Partway through the program, though, Dr. deGrasse Tyson said something about our sun which arrested my attention.

“The sun is a great big ball of incandescent gas.”

It wasn’t this particular “fact” which struck me, but the similarity to something I’d just read in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia.

What caught me was the fact that Dr. deGrasse Tyson’s words were almost the very same thing Eustace Scrubb says to a “retired star” Ramandu in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

“‘In our world,’ said Eustace, ‘a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.’

‘Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of,’” is Ramandu’s reply.

And herein lies the great divide between science and religion, the likes of which Lewis was so keenly aware in his day. Who gets to define what a star is? Is the “true” identity of a star found merely its elemental composition, as modern science tells us? Or is a “huge ball of flaming gas” something far more than its constituent parts, as Lewis would suggest?  While Cosmos does a great job of bringing us face-to-face with some basic information about stars, it doesn’t really answer the question of true stellar identity. There’s something missing from Dr. deGrasse Tyson’s universe.

Before Eustace’s transformation by Aslan the lion, the allegorical Christ figure of the Narnian worlds, Lewis tells us Eustace read all the wrong sorts of books – fact books about “imports and exports and governments and drains”. By themselves, there’s nothing particularly wrong with a book of facts. But if that is all one reads, then empirically deduced factuality is all one projects onto the created order and hardly prepares you for the sort of world that actually is.

Imbedded in the character of Eustace was Lewis’ own critique of the increasingly modern assumptions of his day that reality is nothing more than smartly organized information derived from a purely empirical observation of the physical world. But Lewis had every reason to be critical of modernity. He witnessed the horrors of two world wars fought between “civilized” nations who had essentially embraced and utilized the scientific method and detritus of Darwinian evolution to justify their aggression. For the modern person, such as Eustace Scrubb, life is just “facts.” These facts, in turn, are employed in a purely utilitarian pragmatism. “What use is it?” It’s my guess Lewis might accuse Dr. deGrasse Tyson of reading the “wrong sort of books” too, given his Eustace-like definition of a sun.

What the tacit materialistic assumptions behind Cosmos do not address is why stars, these “tiny” pinpoints of light, inspire us. What is it about these “little” luminaries which evoke a sense of awe and wonder?  Why do fiery balls of incandescent gas inspire art, music and poetry? Is it just the luck of the draw from the period table of the elements?

As the late theologian Thomas F. Torrance wrote, “Analytical thinkers are apt to forget that a whole is rather more than the sum of its parts; that a comprehensive entity has an intrinsic significance as a whole which cannot be broken down and specified in terms of the constituent particulars upon which the whole nevertheless depends.”

The whole of a star is not solely defined by its chemical composition, in other words. The parts (hydrogen, helium, carbon, oxygen, iron, etc.) are not unimportant, of course. They simply aren’t the entire story.

Perhaps one of the most well-known artistic portrayals of stars is Van Gogh’s Starry Night. In 1888, a year before he began the work, he confided to a friend in a letter, “A star-spangled sky, for instance, that’s a thing I would like to try to do … But how can I manage unless I make up my mind to work … from imagination?”

How does one actually do a “star-spangled sky” though? Cosmos gives us a good idea of the sort of material you’d need, but “suns” as they exist in our universe aren’t exactly the sorts of things you can paint by the numbers. You would indeed have to start with a bit of imagination, to say the least. Saying you had this, you’d need far more material than the earth itself could provide. How in the world would you even begin to do it? Where would you put a star if you could make one? What resources would you use? How much would it cost?

What would be the purpose of your star?

And yet, the producers of Cosmos would like us to imagine that the uncountable multitude of giant balls of gas throughout the universe came together without any sort of guided, purposeful, imaginative or creative intelligence behind them.

It is as if they are suggesting Starry Night came together as a result of an accidental collocation of paint droppings on the floor of Van Gogh’s asylum room in the south of France between 1888 and 1889. But even this explanation presupposes the existence of France, paint, artists, brushes, canvas, asylums, nurses, windows, floors, foundations and the likes. Was all that stuff just an accident too? Where’d all that originate? Even just to have random collocation of paint spills to bring about Starry Night requires a great deal of sentient intelligence throughout the multitude of different areas surrounding the actual material culture and time of the painting itself.

Van Gogh only painted the stars onto a canvas and we hail him as an artistic genius. What then about the real stars? Why doesn’t modern science permit the hypothesis of an “artist” in relation to the cosmos? It is a metaphysical question, one which the monochromatic worldview of materialistic causality and the unimaginative, legalistic rigors of an empiricism cannot rightly answer.

Good heavens, indeed.

“And God said, ‘Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years, and let them be lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light upon the earth.’ And it was so. And God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. And God set them in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good.’”

Cosmos, despite its materialistic assumptions, does do an excellent job of showing the goodness of creation. Yet for all its visual appeal, it does not give us the whole picture of our universe.

The prologue to John’s Gospel tells us the Artist has been excluded from his own gallery.

“He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know Him.” There’s a bit of cosmic irony in these words, for the Greek word for “world” is kosmos. A program entitled Cosmos does not once give credit to the Creator of the kosmos for His artistry and glory.

Sin has severed us from our Creator. When He showed up, we didn’t recognize him or know who He was.

“He was in the kosmos, and the kosmos was made through Him, yet the kosmos did not know Him.” If you tune in to Fox on Sunday nights, keep this in mind as you listen to Dr. deGrasse Tyson’s persuasive speech about the heavens and the earth. It’s not the whole story.

In short, the new Cosmos in a sense is something akin to trying to explain Starry Night without a single reference to Vincent Van Gogh. You might talk about the kind of paint used, the canvas, the brush strokes, the colors, even the chosen aspects of the scene itself, and there’s nothing wrong with that per se. But that’s not the entire story of the painting.

Imagine colorful, pastoral scenes, with elegiac, symphonic refrains enveloping the imagery, as Tyson’s smooth baritone timbre explains the unguided natural processes of how Starry Night came together without the sentient, creative input of an artist. The mellow evocative strains of a cello underscore scenes where a myriad of different colored paints mysteriously form themselves into distinct pools in midair, ex nihilo, and drip haphazardly onto a floor, which, just moments before, also enigmatically arranged itself out of nothing. These colors then begin to inexplicably coalesce into distinct shapes and features. The force pulling the paint to the ground also fortuitously appears at just the right moment. The symphonic strains intensify and, well, there you have it. Starry Night, sans the artist.

One narrative in Sisters of the Stars which is a bit more credible and down to earth is the story of three relatively unknown women whose efforts have significantly contributed to our understanding of the stars today.

“To Annie Jump Cannon, Henrietta Swan Leavitt, and Cecilia Pane, for blazing the trail to modern astrophysics and to all the sisters of the sun,” Tyson says at the end of the program.

“Sisters of the sun.”

In a field dominated by men, these women were among a rare an elite group chosen by Harvard astronomer E.C. Pickering in the late 1800s, early 1900s for their astute observational skills. These pioneering women helped to sort and classify over a quarter of a million stars according to the visible light they emitted, almost as if they took Yahweh’s command to Abrahm seriously. “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” (Genesis 15:5)

It was Cecilia Payne who then took this data from the hundreds of thousands of counted stars and further studied it. Her observations helped astronomers better understand the chemical composition of stars. Payne’s hypothesis, however, was initially rejected by astronomers. It took another four years before the male-dominated discipline of astrophysics acknowledged the validity of her findings.

It was this particular aspect of the program, which, for me, had the most conspicuous Gospel allusions, even though the producers of Cosmos most likely did not intend them.

Consider the beginning of the resurrection account found in the 16th chapter of Mark’s Gospel.

Three women.

Sisters of the Son. To be clear, biblically speaking, these women were not literally Jesus’ sisters, of course. But the point, hopefully, is understood.

“When the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb.”

One of the curious things about the resurrection accounts in all four of the Gospels is that women are the first to discover the empty tomb. If the story of the resurrection was fabricated by men, as critics have frequently claimed, using women as the first eyewitnesses of the event would not have been the best thing to do. As we know, the disciples didn’t at first believe them. As Luke tells us, “Now it was Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles, but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.”

Just as astronomers and astrophysicists didn’t believe Cecilia Payne initially. Her thesis regarding the helium and hydrogen content of stars to them was an “idle tale.”

But they were wrong. As the disciples soon discovered for themselves about Jesus’ resurrection.

Dr. Pickering had endured much criticism from his colleagues for his use of women as “eyewitnesses” to stellar luminosity. They derisively called the group “Pickering’s Harem.”

But Pickering didn’t care. He knew what was being accomplished and understood the skills of the women he chose to help him. Annie Jump Cannon was deaf. But because of her loss of hearing at young age because of an illness, she developed an uncanny ability to notice minute details – details which are now foundational in the classification of stars. In Pickering’s time women’s credibility in astrophysics was questionable to say the least.

It was virtually no different for women in biblical times. Their “witness” was severely limited. But the fact that the Gospels tell us that women were the first to find the tomb empty actually serves to bolster the authenticity of the accounts.

Critics of Scripture also like to point out the differences between Mark and John’s accounts regarding the time of the morning when the women arrived at the tomb. Mark 16:1 says the women arrived “just after sunrise.” But John 20:1 has Mary arriving “while it was still dark.” The issue kind of hangs on what John meant by “came.” A Greek language professor once told me that the Greek verb there could mean that Mary left to go to the tomb while it was still dark and thus arrived at the tomb just after the sunrise.

It is a curious note that at the conclusion of Sisters of the Sun Tyson echoes something Sagan said decades ago on the original Cosmos series regarding our relationship with the sun. Consider.

“Our ancestors worshiped the sun. They were far from foolish. Makes good sense to revere the sun and stars, because we are their children. The silicon in the rocks, the oxygen in the air, the carbon in our DNA, the iron in our skyscrapers, the silver in our jewelry, were all made in stars billions of years ago.”

How do staunch materialists who espouse rigorous scientific empiricism as the sole means for apprehending the “facts” of reality, make such an astonishing claim? Neither Tyson nor Sagan explain why our sun-worshipping ancestors were “far from foolish” for their obeisance to a non-existent solar deity. If sun worship isn’t foolish why is it foolish for Christians to worship the Son? Neither do they explain why it “makes good sense to revere the sun.” What is the purpose of reverence to a big ball of flaming gas? Much if not all of that kind of “worship” will go unrequited.

Yet, despite the strange exhortations here, it’s clear that the worldview espoused by these gentlemen who have keenly observed the heavens, especially the sun, has some Gospel tinctures within it, as does all paganism – as C.S. Lewis would argue.

One, we do come from “carbon” – the dust of the ground. Science has confirmed this biblical truth tenfold. The carbon in stars is the same carbon on earth from which the Son took us and formed us. We also, as human beings, have this tacit understanding we ought to be worshipping something outside of ourselves. For Tyson and Sagan, it is the sun, the cosmos itself. For the Christian, it is the Son. We inhabit the cosmos, but we do not worship it.

If we do not revere the Creator, we will inevitably revere the creation.

So, in the end, in all of the accounts we’ve discussed so far, who gets to define what a star actually is?

The Son, who calls all the stars by name (Isaiah 40:26).

It is no mere coincidence that the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) all allude to the rising of the sun at the outset of the resurrection narratives.

As Genesis says, the sun, moon and stars contain more than just their sum total of their elements – “let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years” – they have a purpose.

They are enormous luminary heralds, their awe-inspiring effulgence bespeaking of Jesus’ and the “unapproachable light” in which He dwells, telling of the glory of God (Psalm 19:1-4).

The wise men, in Matthew 2, saw the star of Jesus’ nativity “when it rose.” When Jesus died, the sun did not give its light. At high noon, total darkness enveloped the land for three hours. It thus makes perfect sense then that God would utilize the solar messenger once more to announce the arrival of the Lord Jesus Christ from the dead.

As Yahweh says through Micah, “But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall. And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the Lord of hosts.”

The “sun of righteousness” has indeed risen.

You won’t hear that on Cosmos, though. They’ve been reading the “wrong sort of books.”