Expelled: Is Ben Stein Serious?

By Becky Garrison 4-17-2008

Motive Entertainment, the maverick marketers behind The Passion of the Christ and The Chronicles of Narnia bills Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed as" a controversial new satirical documentary [in which] author, former presidential speechwriter, economist, lawyer and actor Ben Stein travels the world, looking to some of the best scientific minds of our generation for the answer to the biggest question facing all Americans today."

My interest in this flick was piqued when I learned that PZ Myers, a scientist interviewed for this flick, was denied entrance following a confrontation of sorts when he tried to attend an advance screening. The irony of naming a movie "Expelled" only to eject one of your own interviewees struck me as a rather novel albeit bizarre marketing move. The onslaught of negative publicity from outraged scientists represents a publicist's dream. You can't buy this kind of buzz prior to the movie's release on April 18.

As an unexpected PR bonus of sorts, Richard Dawkins was at the above mentioned screening. Even though he was also interviewed for this documentary, for some unexplained reason, he was not given the boot. Anyway, after viewing Expelled, Dawkins blasted the filmmakers for how he felt he was misrepresented by the filmmakers. Oh, come on. Gimme a break. As reported by John Bloom on The Wittenburg Door's web site, "How could you grant an interview to Ben Stein, longtime friend of James Dobson, Pat Robertson, and others on the far religious right, and not know what you were getting into?" (Yes, I know Dawkins claims not to know who Ben Stein is but a man of his stature should have the means to hire an assistant to properly screen his interview requests.)

This film's tagline promotes Stein as the Ferris Bueller of the Intelligent Design community: "Big science has expelled smart new ideas from the classroom. ... What they forgot is that every generation has its Rebel." Hmmm, methinks Stein looks more like Jimmy Dean than James Dean, but perhaps the rebel tag represents a satirical twist of sorts.

This satirical slant continued with clips of a very Jewish looking Stein walking on to the campus of Biola University, as "Personal Jesus" blares in the background. Sounds like the perfect setting for a Ferris Bueller sequel with Stein reprising the role of the droning high school teacher that made him famous. For those who aren't steeped in the history of American fundamentalism, Craig Detweiler, director of the comedic documentary, Purple State of Mind, explains the humor behind this footage. "Biola University was founded upon the same oil money that commissioned, 'The Fundamentals of the Faith,' the turn of the 20th century pamphlets that sparked a Christian religious movement. Ben Stein's appearance at Biola may put the 'fun' back in, take the 'duh' out, and restore the 'mental' in 'Fundamentalism.'"

While Expelled set its sights on disarming their enemy - the "neo-Darwinists" who have ostracized scientists who dare give credence to intelligent design - more often than not they ended up shooting biblical blanks. Unfortunately, the nuances of the evolution versus intelligent design debate were left on the cutting floor in favor of more provocative soundbites that one might expect from say an NBC Dateline "Catch an Evolutionist!"-type special.

For example, juxtaposing Reagan's famous quote - "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall" - against Stein's clarion call for academia to tear down its resistance to intelligent design" served only to insult my intelligence. Having been to Yale Divinity School during the height of the political correctness movement in the 1990s, I can attest that there are consequences to raising one's voice against certain tenured titans. Fortunately, in my case, over-exposure to those with differing and at times extreme ideologies forced me hone my beliefs and gave me the tools that eventually led to my becoming a religious satirist. However, I am aware that others had their careers cut short because they chose not to kow-tow to the party line promulgated by a particular academic institution. Still, unlike those who were trapped literally behind the Berlin Wall, students and faculty remain free to exercise their full rights as citizens of the U.S.

The cheesy black and white clips interspersed to simulate persecution - such as a guillotine to illustrate why a professor got fired for mentioning ID in the classroom, or playing the John Lennon classic "Imagine" over footage of Stalin overseeing his troops - struck me as crude attempts at humor that lacked the biting quality of political satires like Dr. Strangelove or Wag the Dog.

Towards the end of the movie, when Stein takes the audience on a tour of Dachau that implied Darwin would have approved of Hitler's tactics, my stomach churned. This admittedly gruesome display of Holocaust stock footage cries out for the voice of reason that could lend a much needed historical analysis into the socio-political milieu of Victorian England that informed Darwin's discoveries. At the very least, I would expect a timeline of Darwin's discoveries, noting when a few players chose to misused his theories in the name of Social Darwinism. (In the same token, the Bible has been used far too often as a proof to justify some horrendous actions that bear no resemblance whatsoever to Jesus' teachings.)

In fairness to Stein, this film wasn't as biased as The God Who Wasn't There, a pseudo-documentary that pitted Ph.D. level scientists against the webmaster for raptureletters.com. Still, the editing left me with the clear impression that practicing scientists who are people of faith subscribe wholeheartedly to intelligent design. Where were the voices of leading evolutionary biologists who are also practicing Christians, such as Francis Collins, Joan Roughgarden, and Kenneth Miller? Furthermore, leading Christian thinkers such as Alister McGrath, John Lennox, and John Polkinghome were presented in a manner that one could think they are in full agreement with Intelligent Design, when in fact, they have written material critical of this movement. (See Intelligent Design: William A. Dembski & Michael Ruse in Dialogue for a more nuanced discussion of this debate including essays penned by McGrath, Lennox and Polkinghome.)

At last year's Tribeca Film Festival , I attended a panel titled "Prodigies, Nobelists and Penguins: Science and Stereotypes in the Movies." Here, I found a group of filmmakers and scientists who were able to engage in a healthy and sane debate with those of differing beliefs. Here's hoping for the day when a documentary can be made with the degree of humor and intellect that was present both in that conversation, as well as my subsequent discussions with people like Greg Epstein, Humanist Chaplain at Harvard, and other like-minded souls. One can hope.

Becky Garrison's discussion of her book, The New Atheist Crusaders and Their Unholy Grail: The Misguided Quest to Destroy Your Faith, on The Things that Matter Most will be broadcast on April 27. Check the web site for more information or to download the program.

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