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NatGeo’s Breakthrough: Shit Just Got Real #KillerSerials

Killer Serials a partnership between Theoblogy and Pop TheologyRyan Parker and I are tackling a new mini-series, Breakthrough, airing Sunday nights on NatGeo. Read on for our thoughts on the final two episodes.Inline image 1Find all the posts in the series HERE.


Ryan: The Sunday night television landscape is crowded, but National Geographic’s new series, Breakthrough deserves a spot in your DVR. Breakthrough provides a thought-provoking and imaginative perspective on scientific discovery as it unfolds. Each episode follows scientific explorers working on cutting-edge projects with breakthrough potential. If last night’s first episode, “Fighting Pandemics,” is any indication, it will be a celebration of those unsung heroes among us.

“Fighting Pandemics” recounts the west African Ebola outbreak of 2014 and tracks the work of doctors on the ground and around the world who put themselves in places of great risk to not only treat those infected with the virus but to come up with a vaccine and a cure. I previewed the first episode while I was flying back from New York and started looking at my passengers with grave suspicion.

Tony, the first thing that jumped out at me in this series was the brilliance of the people working to combat Ebola and other deadly diseases like it. There’s a segment in which they talk about crystallizing proteins that absolutely blew my mind. The next thing that struck me was the severity of the outbreak, I don’t know that we were all fully aware of just how bad it was and, more frightening, how bad it could have been…or for the apocalyptically-minded among us, will most likely be.

Tony: Yes, for sure. Brilliance, and courage. Dr. Ian Crozier takes center stage for much of the show, and he is a simply amazing person. When he arrived in the US, he was the sickest of any Ebola patient to be treated at Emory University in Atlanta. Many of us will remember the helicopter footage of him walking gingerly, in a head-to-toe white suit, from an ambulance to the back door of the hospital.


Dr. Ian Crozier revisits the hospital room in which he almost died from Ebola (credit: NatGeo)

Crozier narrates his experience in the show. For example, he remembers that walk, and walking into his hospital room. And then he remembers nothing from the next four weeks. His nurse, however, remembers it well, and she meets him in that room where they talk about his multiple organ failure. Finally, Crozier beat Ebola.

Then he got it again, in his left eye. The footage of his eye changing from blue to green is haunting, as it is when it then turns yellow from the steroids he gets. He beat Ebola again.

Then he returned to West Africa. All I could think was that the last place I’d ever go is back to the place where I caught the virus that almost killed me. But Crozier went back, and he found other survivors who were having re-occurrences in their eyes.

Ryan: You and I are coming at this series from theological/religious/spiritual perspectives. The question that haunted me throughout the episode was whether or not we have a theology for viruses and pandemics. What do we say about God and nature in front of the ruthless, genocidal maniacs that are viruses, which themselves are a part of nature? The ways in which the episode describes them, it’s difficult not to think of them as sentient beings bound and determined to wipe us all out.

Another issue with which we are not unfamiliar in the United States is, in the face of illness, whether or not we will take a pre-modern (so to speak) approach or if we will embrace science. One of the main contributions to the Ebola outbreak in west Africa was a witch doctor who tried to cure patients with ancient methods. We know people who resist vaccinations in our own country for religious reasons.

Tony: That really caught my attention, too. That witch doctor promised that she could cure Ebola, but instead she contracted it and died. Researchers now think that up to 100 people caught it at her funeral and carried it back to their villages, and that’s where it spread.

In his masterful work, A Secular Age, philosopher Charles Taylor describes the time in which we live as “disenchanted.” The spread of Ebola was hastened by those who lived in an enchanted world of witch doctors and magical incantations, and the fight against Ebola is being waged by the disenchanted: scientists, doctors, researchers, and public health experts.

The answer to your question is, No, we do not have a theology for viruses and pandemics. In fact, we don’t really have a theology that deals with science and with the realities of a secular age. It will be fascinating to watch the remaining episodes of Breakthrough and ponder the Christian response to scientific advancement.

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  • Dustin

    I think a person who is laying what might become a foundation for a theology that deals seriously with science and its associated issues is Nancy Murphy. I have read a smattering of her work and it has made me hungry for more. She’s a rigorous and creative thinker, and her writing is technical-but-engaging. Aside from her, several people have touched on the subject, but I can’t name anyone else who is cutting quite as deeply (I suspect that person is out there, I just don’t know who they are).
    It needs that rare person or group who can do rigorous theology, rigorous science, and communicate the two clearly and well to diverse audiences, with wide credibility. That’s a tall order.