March 20, 2008 by Jeffrey Overstreet
Did Richard Dawkins just crash the party at a screening of Expelled?
To one fellow standing in line for the movie, it certainly looked that way as things played out on the evening he caught a sneak preview of the film.
On Thursday night, I received this email report from Looking Closer reader and college student Stuart Blessman.
Please note: It was an email. It was not an essay, not a researched dissertation. Just a “Hey, I just came from a movie screening, and something unexpected happened! Here’s my impression of what happened!”
Stuart thought I’d find it interesting, and as someone interested in filmmaking and the dialogue surrounding it, I certainly do find it interesting. I haven’t seen Expelled, the documentary in question, and I have no opinion of it… ”for” or “against.” But Stuart’s account, as best he could relate it in a spur-of-the-moment email, was intriguing.
I asked him if I could share it with you. So he framed it as a sort of “letter to the editor.”
In the next few hours, this blog post was visited by more than 10,000 new visitors. And many of them wrote to me, either via Comments on this blog, or by email. Almost all of them demonstrated clearly that they’ve already made up their minds about Expelled even before it is ready for theaters. And almost all of them seem to think that Stuart is launching some kind of nuclear attack on them and their evolutionist theories. They have risen up en masse and published character assassinations of Stuart, calling him “a shameful liar” and “a disgrce to his university,” when in fact he was just a college student and a moviegoer who sent me an off-the-cuff email telling me about his memorable moviegoing experience.
Sounds like somebody’s really scared. I’ve been buried in hate mail from evolutionists and athiests in the last 24 hours, much of it laced with obscenities and spectacular recommendations about sex acts that Christians should go and do with themselves. Ah, what fine representatives for their worldview. Very little of the response has borne any substance. (I’ve posted some of the comments that came in, but only those that were offered with civility and restraint. I eventually gave up on sifting through the pile for looking for more.)
It’s rather surprising to see this kind of thing coming from folks who will, at the same time, write off Christians as judgmental and hateful. It’s rather surprising to see such offense taken, as if there really is an absolute right and wrong written into the universe after all. Interesting, huh? Stuart must have hit a nerve. Somebody seems to be feeling threatened.
But first, here’s the email that Stuart sent me within minutes of arriving back home from the screening.*
My name is Stuart Blessman and I’m a student at the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities involved with a campus outreach ministry. Our head pastor was recently offered two pairs of tickets to go see an advanced screening of Ben Stein’s “Expelled”, but had to instead pass the tickets to an associate pastor, who then offered one of them to me. So at 7:00 pm on Thursday my friend Grant and I got to go see the movie. Right away, let me just say that this is the Best Documentary of 2008…if it will get played. The basic premise of the movie is that Intelligent Design should be allowed equal footing as a teachable theory within academia. This movie is not an apology for Creation; pains are taken to distinguish Creation from Intelligent Design. This is also not a movie that bashes Evolutional Theory, although many rational arguments are brought up as to the validity of Evolutionary thought as well as the long-term consequences of an Evolutionary Worldview.
The Associate Producer of the film, Mark Mathis, introduced the film as well as moderated for the quick Q&A following the film. The movie we saw was a rough Director’s Cut; at several moments things appeared to be out of sync, and occasionally archival historical footage appeared to “jump” on the screen. Mathis also mentioned that several music cues might change before the final cut, which is understandable since several high profile songs and artists are used in the film.
The film can best be described as subtly clever and occasionally funny. Emotions are stirred up especially built around the movies overall theme*, and many scenes especially later in the movie might be difficult to watch based on one’s ethnic and religious background.
But enough about the film – the real highlight of the evening occurred after the showing, during the Q&A. Mathis led this discussion, and the second question was asked by a surprise member of the audience: Richard Dawkins, author of “The God Delusion,” and arguably the biggest name in the movie other than Mr. Ben Stein himself. As this screening was by invitation only, Dawkins appearance was quite a surprise to both the audience and Mathis.
Dawkins asked a simple question: Why was one of his colleagues interviewed in the movie denied a chance to come see this movie and protest it and in fact was escorted out by security prior to admittance to the theatre? The irony apparently escaped Mr. Dawkins that he himself was a gatecrasher to the movie and was uninvited; nevertheless, he wanted to know why his colleague was turned away even though he himself was admitted as were his colleague’s family.
I just happened to be standing directly in line behind Dawkins’ academic colleague. Management of the movie theatre saw a man apparently hustling and bothering several invited attendees, apparently trying to disrupt the viewing or sneak in. Management then approached the man, asked him if he had a ticket, and when he confirmed that he didn’t, they then escorted him off the premises. Nowhere was one of the film’s producers to be found, and the man certainly didn’t identify himself. If a producer had been nearby, it’s possible that he would have been admitted, but the theatre’s management didn’t want to take any chances.
So ultimately Dawkins’ first complaint was irrelevant. His second complaint was that any statement he made in the film was in fact under the assumption that he was being interviewed by Ben Stein (and by Mark Mathis) for a film that was to take an even-handed look at the Intelligent Design/Evolution controversy. Unfortunately, the entire audience, minus Dawkins’ posse, agreed that that the film’s main point was that Intelligent Design should be taught in conjunction with Evolution.
The Q&A then proceeded pretty uneventfully, with several of the questions addressed to Dawkins himself. Mathis and Dawkins also clearly had spoken on numerous occasions and appeared to continue an argument that they had started previously. The evening however was cut short by theatre management and an imminent showing of another movie in the same room.
Ben Stein’s “Expelled” is one of the more evenhanded, clever, and well-produced documentaries currently on the market. While the Evolution/Intelligent Design debate can spark much emotion, anyone walking away from this film will be convinced that the merits of Intelligent Design should be on the same level playing field as Evolutionary Theory. This film is about the freedom of speech, the freedom of ideas and ability to express those ideas…not about whether God created the heavens and the earth.
*SPOILER!! Proceed and highlight text below only if you want to know more about the film’s specific content.
Many scenes are centered around the Berlin Wall, and Ben Stein being Jewish actually visits many death camps and death showers. In fact, Nazi Germany is the thread that ties everything in the movie together. Evolution leads to atheism leads to eugenics leads to Holocaust and Nazi Germany.
Now, a few things:
Stuart isn’t some covert agent from Ben Stein’s camp. He’s not some player in a big game. He’s not connected to this movie in any official capacity. He was the invited guest of a moviegoer who had received an official invitation to the screening. At the movie, he was surprised by what happened before and after, and he went home and shared his impressions in an off-the-cuff email. I asked him if I could share it. I’m not claiming his account is 100% accurate — I’m sharing it like a letter to the editor because, well… that’s pretty much what it is.
I wasn’t there. This is one person’s account of the events as he perceived them.
For those rising up in a fury to defend PZ Myers against any notion of wrongdoing, well… let’s let Mr. Myers speak for himself:
PZ Myers wrote:
… I will go see this movie, and I will cheer loudly at my 30 seconds or whatever on the screen, and I will certainly disembowel its arguments here and in any print venue that wants me. That’s going to be fun.
Jeez. Don’t you think filmmakers might be a little reluctant to let this fellow into a screening of their film if he is publicly announcing that he’s going to ”cheer loudly” whenever he appears onscreen? And that he’s already determined, before seeing the movie, that he will immediately run out and “disembowel” it? Is that the “scientific method” he embraces? I certainly wouldn’t invite him, if it was my movie.
I left the Comments section open for a while. All accounts were welcome, so long as they followed my Comments policy.
But alas, I had to delete *many* of the comments that came in response to Stuart’s account, simply because they were little more that blasts of obscenities and hatred.
As you can see from sites like this one, some folks prefer smug, juvenile rants and mockery to intelligent discussion. Is this the kind of community that such a worldview encourages, I wonder? It certaily makes me want to seek a more civil, compassionate neighborhood.
More discussion of this film is getting started at ArtsandFaith.com. You’re invited. Come see what a civil, thoughtful discussion looks like.
For those interested in the movie (and not in performing character assassinations on Stuart), here are some links that people might find interesting. These are “ID The Future” podcast interviews that the Discovery Institute did with the producers of Expelled.
Does this seem like honorable behavior befitting a distinguished professor? Stuart, a student, sends an email about something he observed, and Professor PZ Myers does not respond by saying, “Unfortunately, Stuart misunderstood,” or “Let me give you my opinion,” or “Let’s agree to disagree.” No, he goes public and declares, (comment #573 here)
“Stuart Blessman, the student at UM who made that claim at the lookingcloser blog, is a liar. A shameful liar and a disgrace to the university.”
Doesn’t that seem a bit extreme? I mean, I’ve been known to disagree with people, even passionately. But to call someone “a disgrace to their university” simply because you disagree with their perception of a public hubbub, well… that teaches me a lot more about the Professor than it does about the subject in question.
It’s almost enough to inspire someone to make a documentary.
Okay, here are the Comments that seemed civil enough to post.
And Stuart… hey, I (for one) understood you were just offering your perception of what happened, not presenting a research paper. And thank you for responding to so much hostility with humility, patience, and grace. Whatever the ideologies represented here, the Sportsmanship award goes to you.
47 Responses to “Did Richard Dawkins just crash the party at a screening of “Expelled”?”