Playing God Project

“Playing God: Exploring the Interactions Among the Biosciences, Religion, and Entertainment Media” is funded by the Wellcome Trust through an Investigator Award in the Medical History and Humanities. This long-term project is the first in-depth historical study of the interactions among the biosciences, religion, and entertainment media. The goal of this investigation is to uncover the ways that entertainment professionals converted the biosciences into cultural products like movies, television programmes, and comic books and how diverse religious communities have negotiated these texts. We believe that the results of our studies will provide valuable insights into the interface between science and religion by demonstrating the ways entertainment media have negotiated bio-scientific knowledge’s role in influencing morality both positively and negatively between 1930 and the present.

The interface between science and religion has traditionally been depicted as an unbridgeable conflict. In recent years scholars have raised doubts about the historic and contemporary basis of this conflict narrative. Yet, the relationship between science and religion remains a topic of concern to the scientific community as indicated by the continuing controversy about the acceptable use of “God particle” to describe the Higgs boson. Religious responses to bioscientific research can be particularly complicated because it often involves questions about the origins of life and explorations of human nature. Religious objections to the biosciences do not always emerge from moral concerns nor do they always refer to ethical implications of new biotechnologies. It is also not the case that religious groups reject every new development in the biosciences, even controversial ones like genomic enhancement.

Bioscientific discoveries force society to challenge its cultural norms and individuals to question their own personal beliefs. Few cultural institutions have more influence on social values and belief systems than religion, and few cultural products have as much impact on the public perceptions of science as entertainment media. By examining how media professionals create entertainment texts with bioscientific or bioscience/religion themes and how religious groups respond to these texts this project will shed light on these important cultural institutions. We hope to produce an analysis showing that the interactions among the biosciences, religion and entertainment media was, and is, a much more complex landscape than indicated by the stereotype of the antagonistic, biblically literal US fundamentalist.

Movie censors attempted to remove any trace of the original Darwinian narrative embedded within the 1933 film Island of Lost Souls.

Religious communities have often attempted to influence how stories about bioscience appear in books, comic books, on television, and on movie screens. Movie censor boards, for example, dictated what bioscientific subjects were considered appropriate for films and which were considered indecent. Christian organizations played a central role in creating and running film censorship organizations in the US and UK. From 1930 to 1968 movie studios sent their screenplays to censorship groups including Hollywood’s official censorship body the “Hays Office”, the Catholic Church’s Legion of Decency and the British Board of Film Censors. Censorship is an unusual combination of production (controlling what gets into texts) and reception (editing or banning completed texts). Movie censors acted as gatekeepers who only permitted what they saw as “acceptable” narratives about science to reach the screen and their mistrust of the public led them to attempt control over audience interpretations through the removal of ambiguity. As part of the “Playing God” project David A. Kirby is using material from the archives of these censorship organizations to explore how filmmakers tried to tell stories about science and how censorship groups modified these cinematic narratives in order to tell what they considered more appropriate stories about science as a social, political and cultural force. An analysis of motion picture censorship will provide insights into what religious minded people saw as morally offensive, indecent, or horrific about science or scientific ways of thinking. He is currently writing up a book on this topic titled “Indecent Science: Religion, Science and Movie Censorship, 1930-1968”.

Neville’s sacrificial blood saves humanity in The Omega Man (1971) - Charlton Heston transitioned from being God (and Moses) in Classical Hollywood biblical epics to playing God in the labs of science fiction films of the seventies.
Neville’s sacrificial blood saves humanity in The Omega Man (1971) – Charlton Heston transitioned from being God (and Moses) in Classical Hollywood biblical epics to playing God in the labs of 1970s science fiction cinema

The Hollywood Production Code was abandoned in 1968 and replaced with a ratings system. By the end of the sixties the censorship guidelines that had once governed mainstream Hollywood output had become irrelevant and largely impotent. The end of this period of censorship also saw a decline in Judeo-Christian influence upon Hollywood. But, religious groups were still actively engaged in discussions of cinema and its relevance to contemporary religious life. As part of the “Playing God” project Amy C. Chambers will investigate how Catholic and mainline Protestant religious communities continued to engage with science-based narrative cinema made in the immediate post-classical Hollywood period (c.1967-1977). She is using material from the archives of the Catholic Office of Film and Broadcasting and mainline Christian newspaper and magazine archives to understand how Christians have influenced, responded to, and appropriated post-classical Hollywood science-based cinema. Amy is currently writing up a book on this topic titled “From Star Child To Star Wars: American Science (Fiction), Film, and Religion 1967-1977″.

Evangelist preacher and filmmaker ‘Dr.’ Irwin A. Moon in the Red River of Life (1957) utilizes the beating heart of a human cadaver as a teaching aid on a film set that resembles a medical laboratory. The heart was used to demonstrate the scientific principles of blood circulation and also served as evidence of intelligent design.
Evangelist preacher and filmmaker ‘Dr.’ Irwin A. Moon in the Red River of Life (1957) uses the beating heart of a human cadaver as evidence of intelligent design on a film set that resembles a medical laboratory.

Most religious organizations do not, or cannot, exert control over the content in entertainment media. Yet, many religious groups were, and still are, concerned about the effect of entertainment products on morality. One way by which religious groups have historically attempted to counteract cinema’s perceived negative impact was to begin producing their own entertainment products. As part of the “Playing God” project William R. Macauley will explore how the Christian entertainment industry crafted stories involving the biosciences across a range of entertainment media, and how various communities, including the scientific community, responded to these texts. These productions are not exclusively about what a particular faith finds morally problematic. They also reflect stories about the biosciences that people of faith find inspirational or which they believe reflect their value systems. William’s research will examine how the biosciences are conveyed in entertainment products that deal with themes such as human reproduction, terminal illness, televangelical faith healing, life after death, and posthumanism. In addition to analyzing the portrayal of biosciences and medicine in faith-based entertainment media during pre- and post-production stages, William’s research project draws on material from archival sources such as the Moody Bible Institute, the Billy Graham Center, and the US National Archives. William is presently writing a book on his research titled “Science for the Soul: The Portrayal of Biosciences and Medicine in Faith Based Entertainment Media (c. 1960 – 2010)”.

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