In a few other posts I’ve taken up the theme of theology as practiced by artists, filmmakers (both cinema and television) and fiction writers. Once again, television audiences this past week were witness to a bit of theologizing. This time Ken Burns, the documentary filmmaker who changed the way documentaries are made with his Civil War, offers his take on God and nature in The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.
The New York Times was not impressed with Burn’s latest endeavor, and they have some very valid points regarding what they call a “central feature of the Ken Burns aesthetic.” I think the Burn’s aesthetic, which has inspired many less talented copy-cats, was most perfectly suited to subjects like the Civil War. If I have one complaint about the Burn’s aesthetic it’s that he’s not particularly flexible when it comes to handling different subjects. Everything gets put through the Burn’s sausage grinder whether it’s boxers, road trips, or bridge builders. However, the one overwhelmingly redeeming element is the fact that no one comes close to doing the Burn’s aesthetic as well as Ken Burns. When The New York Times reviewer suggests most of the footage from National Parks could just as easily be seen on the Discovery Channel, he is wrong. The National Parks film is visually stunning and surprising.
I’m more interested in the theology offered by Burns via his resident theologian, John Muir. Burns titles the first segment of the film, “The Scripture of Nature.” In short, Burns via Muir maintains that nature is the best gateway to the realm of the transcendent. Conversation is not about reserving resources for future generations; it’s about the ability of humankind to remain in contact with a sense of the transcendent. It’s an argument against consumerist individualism and the rational atheism of Dawkins et alt.
Last May at Boston College’s commencement, Burns appealed to the graduating class to transcend themselves and answer a higher calling. He compared the task of this young generation to the task that faced the “greatest generation,” the men and women who went to war against fascism and totalitarianism in the forties. Burns pounded the podium and sounded the rallying cry for a new army that will confront the destructive forces of hyper-rationalized individualism. With the same sense of urgency, Burns makes room for the transcendent with his first episode of The National Parks.