For many secular people, enjoying and studying the natural world is a pseudo-religious experience. Whether hiking or camping, stargazing or surfing, or simply watching Planet Earth on TV, they encounter something sublime in nature, something transcendent that feels strangely like church but is usually explained in terms of awe at the power and grandeur of Mother Nature.
Christians have a different, arguably simpler explanation for the spiritually charged quality of the natural world. People feel a connection to God in nature because natural things (including people) are God’s handiwork. When we look at the wonders of nature—animals, plants, weather, landscapes—and feel that they beg questions beyond themselves, it’s because they do. They are created things that point to their Creator.
Directed by author and filmmaker N. D. Wilson (The River Thief, Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl), The Riot and the Dance is narrated by Gordon Wilson and inspired by his biology textbook of the same name. It’s a rare and much-needed film that combines beautiful, Planet Earth-style high-definition footage with insightful theological commentary and acknowledgment that this beautiful planet is not just an accident. It’s a masterpiece.
Supernatural Nature Documentary
“I am a teacher, a writer, but first, I am a hand-crafted creature, and this is my celebration of the world we have all been given.”
If this sounds like a strange statement coming from a biology professor like Wilson, that’s because it is.
“These days a biologist is supposed to focus on naturalistic causes exclusively,” Wilson says. “But when I look at the world, I see the supernatural everywhere.”
These days a biologist is supposed to focus on naturalistic causes exclusively. But when I look at the world, I see the supernatural everywhere.
A sort of “Jack Hanna meets Jack (C. S.) Lewis” Hobbit, Wilson take us on a captivating journey from his own Shire-like home in Idaho to the harsh dry climate of the Sonoran Desert and the tropical rainforests of Sri Lanka, among other locations.
Along the way he draws our attention to a wide variety of God’s creatures, from water bugs and sun spiders to giant bats and coachwhip snakes, one of the fastest snakes in the western hemisphere (“10 mph might not seem fast to you, but it is when you don’t have any legs.”).
Shot over three years in countless locations, the film features almost entirely original footage and is the first installment in what will be a franchise with several sequels. Part 2: Water is now in production and could be released next year.
Wonder at Home Precedes Wandering the World
The “connectivity” of our age can draw our attention everywhere but where we are. The glut of media at our fingertips can also have a dulling effect, squelching our ability to be awed by the simple and proximate.
A film like The Riot and the Dance calls us to open our eyes to the “living gallery” all around. Indeed, the structure of the film—beginning with the wonders of Wilson’s own backyard (jumping squirrels, frogs, ants eating a dead earthworm) before venturing farther afield—underscores this point.
When you’ve been amazed by the mundane, then you are ready to wander and explore.
“Wonder is waiting for you right outside your door,” Wilson insists. “When you’ve been amazed by the mundane, then you are ready to wander and explore.”
This is a crucial message for those of us prone to fidgety wanderlust. There is majesty wherever we are, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear how the heavens declare it. As Wilson says in the film, “To be bored in this world is to be boring in this world.”
Explore God’s Living Art Museum
Who is the intended audience for The Riot and the Dance? Director N. D. Wilson says it is twofold: Christian families “who need to open their eyes to the artistry and glory of our Father” and unbelievers “who need to see that this reality we all share is not meaningless.”
Wilson told TGC he hopes all viewers “experience joy, wonder, and a yearning for resurrection, paired with a desire to wander every corner of God’s living museum.”
Indeed, the “God’s living museum” idea is central in the film, which presents the natural world as a sort of Louvre on steroids, where every work of art is by the same artist (who works in different motifs but especially loves the color green).
The film presents the natural world as a sort of Louvre on steroids, where every work of art is by the same artist.
“If we wanted to study someone like Michelangelo, we would want to study everything that he wrote, everything that he made,” Gordon Wilson says in the film. “In the same way, the way you get to know God is to study everything he wrote and made. . . . The word of God is not just in black and red letters on onion skin pages. It’s living and breathing in the mountains, the deserts, the trees. He glories in it, and so should we.”
Glorying in the artistry of God is exactly what this film is all about, whether by surveying the patterns of a star tortoise shell or the ribbon-like movements of a vine snake.
Throughout the film, Wilson relays facts about the creatures on screen (did you know hummingbird wings beat 70 times per second?) with a tone of childlike wonder and worship.
Divine Artistry in Spiders?
But not everything in creation is as pleasant as hummingbirds, and because of the fall, nature can sometimes feel more like a riot than a dance.
“As beautiful as this world is, brokenness is everywhere, providing us glimpses that are far more hell than heaven,” Wilson observes, as we watch footage of a dead seal pup being eaten by seagulls, a lizard and hawk fighting to the death, or a warthog disemboweling a dead water buffalo.
Indeed, creation is broken and groans for redemption (Rom. 8:22). Yet even with death and chaos everywhere, Eden is still visible. Though snakes are frightening and deadly to humans now, Wilson reminds us that one day, “the nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den” (Isa. 11:8). The whimsical final images of the film—a cobra playing with water balloons, to the music of Bach—hint at this future.
Creation is broken and groans for redemption. Yet even with death and chaos everywhere, Eden is still visible.
Wilson challenges viewers to see the world as God sees it, loving and learning from all his creatures, even the frightful ones like millipedes and bees (“they have much to teach and give us in their diligence”).
“Do we see divine artistry in spiders?” he asks. “We should.”
Responsible, Attentive Stewards
In watching The Riot and the Dance, Christians will be amused and awed. But we should also be reminded of our responsibility as stewards of God’s creation.
“You can’t be ignorant of all these creatures and be good stewards,” Wilson says. “If we are to have dominion over all creatures, we need to know these creatures.”
This is part of why science should be a valuable discipline to Christians. To study the natural world, to know its complexities and patterns and mysteries, is crucial if we are to be faithful stewards of it. But even beyond science, our stewardship should be expressed in terms of attentiveness and appreciation.
In a fast-paced, utilitarian age, are we willing to slow down to truly notice, and lovingly tend to, God’s creation? Or do we only pay attention to what we can use, or what is a threat?
In a fast-paced, utilitarian age, are we willing to slow down to truly notice, and lovingly tend to, God’s creation?
The Riot and the Dance calls us to an attentive stewardship that goes beyond utility and enters the realm of worship.
“Look a puma in the face. Really look. Know that its symmetry and grace was invented from nothing,” Wilson says at one point in the film. In another scene, the camera takes in a forest of majestic Coastal Redwoods, some thousands of years old.
“If [God] spent 2,000 years shaping something, can we spare the time to give it a glance?”
Indeed, as busy as we might be, we should spare the time to look at these created marvels, with no agenda beyond appreciating and knowing them more. A couple hours on April 19 watching a documentary like this is a good place to start.