Retired vicar Graham Buttanshaw wrote to the BBC to complain about some of the assumptions made in their Earth series
You may have seen the BBC’s Earth series presented by Chris Packham. The four episodes are an informative and fascinating watch about the history of our planet. Especially to an ignoramus like me who had never heard of the Pangea (the single landmass or supercontinent which began to break up into our existing continents about 200 million years ago).
My complaint to the BBC
I complained to the BBC about one line in the fourth episode ‘Atmosphere’. The issue was the emergence of life on Earth. Chris Packham acknowledged the mystery of how, when and where life began but called it an “instant of pure chance”. Here is most of my written complaint:
“Chris Packham said: ‘So much of how life began is still a mystery. But we do know one day a living thing came into existence, the first microscopic organism. And in that instant of pure chance everything changed. The Earth became a living world.”
I object, on behalf of all who believe in God, to a scientist presenting the view that life began by pure chance without acknowledging respectfully that a great many people, including respected scientists throughout the world, believe the process was somehow directed by God (or a higher power). The implication is that an atheistic point of view is the only scientifically acceptable one, and this is biased and false.
Apart from no-platforming God, I enjoyed the program and the presenter.”
Ten days later, I received the BBC’s first response. As you can read below, they hadn’t read my complaint but had simply dashed off a standard defence of evolution…
The BBC’s response
Many thanks for taking the time to get in touch with us – we were naturally disappointed to hear of your unhappiness.
Whilst we appreciate your own personal view, we’d explain that the BBC is clear that evolution is a scientific theory. Scientific theories are not claimed to be 100 per cent fact, but are established by being tested against factual evidence. That is how science works and progresses, and theories become a generally understood and accepted premise.
Evolution by natural selection is a theory that has been repeatedly tested, and remains the best and most robust explanation for all the known factual evidence about life on Earth.
The details of evolution have been refined as new evidence has emerged, as happens with all scientific theories. However, no evidence or data has yet emerged that the fundamental principles of evolution are unable to accommodate…”
My second complaint
I complained about the inadequate response to my first complaint, beginning: “The BBC response to my complaint was entirely misdirected, not to say patronising.”
The BBC finally responded: “We are sorry our first response misunderstood your concern.” They said that my viewpoint (now understood) has been included in their “nightly report”.
Why is this important?
It illustrates how hard it is to get a fair hearing in the media, and perhaps in the public domain generally. Before we even start to make a case, we may face a ‘pre-judgement’ (i.e. prejudice) that what we are going to say about God or creation is already known and rejected.
Of course, this pre-judgement is not exclusive to matters of faith. We live in a time when listening is rare, and shouting down, denouncing and no-platforming is all too common.
What can we do?
Here are two suggestions, looking to ourselves first:
- Acknowledge that we have often been the problem and may still be! Our faith is everything to us – the way we see life and find meaning. But is it sometimes so precious that we resist anything which challenges it? Faith (like love) can be unhelpfully blind. And if we can’t seriously engage with science, how can we expect science to listen to us?
Sometimes I think we are too cosy, hiding or protecting our faith from reality like a comfortable sitting room we can retreat to, with a warming fire in the grate. Often that is the comfort God blesses us with, but God is not just a comforting fire in the sitting room but also the all-consuming fire of the volcanic eruption.
In the New Testament, the word translated ‘faith’ is the Greek ‘pistis’. It’s more an attitude of heart than intellectual assent. It could equally be translated ‘trust’ and includes the concepts of loyalty and commitment. It expresses the personal nature of our relationship with God. This trust and commitment is often the only thing that keeps us going when there is so much that is painful or that we don’t understand. But we don’t have to understand. We do have to trust.
Get access to exclusive bonus content & updates: register & sign up to the Premier Unbelievable? newsletter!
We don’t have to understand how God created the world. We simply affirm it. Science reminds us how magnificent and beyond understanding our creator is. As the hymn goes: “O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder consider all the works thy hand has made…”
- We evangelicals have been deeply committed to a simple and clear outline of the gospel: Creation, fall, redemption. I continue to hear this big story often – a summary of the gospel, which implies or states that God created the world/ Universe perfect. Then human sin entered this perfect world and separated us from God. Our broken relationship with God, and the brokenness of creation is (and can only be) redeemed by Christ and his atoning death on the cross.
I absolutely believe in the redemption that Christ has brought and is bringing to us and all creation. But I do not believe in a perfect creation or an historic fall. Science, of course (as in the BBC’s Earth series) offers us a history of our planet that is not compatible either with an originally perfect creation or the Fall. So, I cringe every time the gospel is presented as if an historic fall happened.
Yet we must retain, and regain confidence in, the accounts of the creation and the Garden of Eden in Genesis 1-3. They are absolutely foundational to our understanding of life, God, creation and humanity. And, like the rest of the Bible, they offer a vision of the good purposes of God to redeem all of creation and bring in his kingdom.
Graham Buttanshaw has degrees in economics, English literature and theology. He served as CMS Mission Partner in Juba, South Sudan and later with Sudanese refugees in N Uganda, where he taught at Bishop Allison Theological College for four years. Graham was a vicar in West Yorkshire for 22 years and is now ‘retired’, writing and living in Cheshire with his wife Janet.