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What I Learned From 'Human Planet'
May 20, 2011
I’ve got a thing for documentaries, and especially for nature documentaries. I loved Planet Earth and Blue Planet and Life and Nature’s Most Amazing Events—some of the recent major productions (all of which come from the BBC, as it happens). Human Planet is the same but different. It features the same stunning, high-definition footage of the planet and its inhabitants. But this time it focuses far more on people than on plants or animals. It focuses on the human element of life.
It does this by looking at the various habitats in which humans have learned to live and thrive: from deserts to the Arctic, from the grasslands to the cities (and everywhere in between). The camera work is top-notch, the stories are fascinating, the music is powerful, the overall experience is inspiring. Allow me to share a few of the lessons I learned from this series.
We Are Amazing
When God created human beings, he created something extraordinary. This series treats us as if we are simply the species that has managed to evolve the furthest but, of course, we know better. God created us to have dominion over the earth, and we have done that in amazing fashion. From the frozen Arctic to the hottest deserts we have gone into the world to subdue it and to have dominion over it. The tragedy of it is that so few know what God has called us to. So many serve foreign gods or serve no God at all.
It is amazing to watch this series and to see human ingenuity, which is really an imitation of God’s ingenuity (since we have been made in his image). Some of this ingenuity is thousands of years old; some is cutting edge. But since God put us on this earth, we have learned to adapt and to thrive in breathtaking ways. This series highlights some of the most impressive and most unexpected ways we have done that.
We Have Work to Do
The series makes it clear that we, as Christians, have a lot of work to do. There are many who still have not heard the gospel. In fact, this series provides the first footage of a tribe in the South American jungles that remains unknown. All we know of them are what we can learn from brief glimpses taken from an plane flying high above the jungle canopy. Countless millions remain unreached or unsaved. Much of what this series praises is actually idolatry and is repugnant to God. We can sometimes find ourselves thinking that we live in a post-missionary age, but this is far from the truth. The gospel still needs to go into the most distant corners of the earth. And this is exactly the work God has called us to.
There Is No Innocence
A couple of the episodes in this series show nudity—either women with bare breasts or men who do not cover up their genitals. I watched these episodes and thought little of it at the time; it was just like reading a National Geographic. In many cultures breasts are almost-wholly functional (something that becomes obvious when you watch women nurse monkeys or gazelles!). In other cultures the women cover their genitals but the men to do not. And yet as I reflected on this I realized that nudity is nudity, whether functional or sexual. Those cultures that do not cover themselves are doing so despite the consequence of sin, not apart from it. It is not innocence that keeps them from covering up what has become shameful after the Fall, but disobedience. Nakedness is not redeemed even in a culture where it is considered meaningless. (Note: Because of this nudity, I would not allow my children to watch the series)
Under the same heading, there are a couple of not-so-subtle themes that pervade the series. The first is that of the “noble savage.” When looking at indigenous cultures, especially those that have been largely untouched by Western civilization, there is a tendency to suggest that these people are in some way more pure than we are, that they are superior to us. But, of course, none of us really wish to trade our high-definition televisions for that kind of purity, do we? This series offers a glimpse into many native cultures and it is not difficult to see that there is no more innocence there than in the midst of our modern cities.
Hating People Is Hating God
The second theme pervading the series is that we are destroying this planet and that we ought to be collectively ashamed of ourselves. Of course there is some truth to this; we are not being exemplary in our treatment of this planet that God has called on us to steward. But neither is there much evidence that we are heading toward some kind of man-made apocalypse because of our use of oil or our carbon output. When we hate people, when we hold against mankind his God-given desire to subdue the earth, we truly hate God.
And there are four takeaways from the series. In the end I have to say that I quite enjoyed it—some episodes more than others, of course. Much of the overall ideology is disappointing, but I’ve long since learned to filter that and to replace it with truth. The writing is not as good as in the other films, but the stories are just as enjoyable. The footage is just as beautiful, just as stirring. In the end this series moved me to worship the God who made this a human planet so we could glorify him in it.