1In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2 the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. 3 Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 4 And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
Three Minute Film Summary
The Theory of Everything is a film based on the biography of astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, who is considered by many to be the smartest living person today, in the same league as past geniuses like Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. More to the point, the film is based directly on the book “Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen” by his former wife, Jane Wilde Hawking.
The film begins with Hawking as a young student at Cambridge, entering his doctoral program, but uncertain about what field to study, and more committed to parties and social pursuits than to his studies. He meets and begins to court Jane Wilde, begins to impress his professors as someone with a bright future, and then disaster strikes as he is diagnosed with ALS, or motor neuron disease. He is given two years to live, and is emotionally devasted, but Jane brings him back from the brink of despair, and they are shortly married.
As Hawking’s physical health continues to deteriorate throughout the film, his career and family life begin to take off. He is awarded his doctorate, publishes groundbreaking contributions to his field, and has three children. However, both his increasing fame and his increasing disability take a strong toll on his relationship with Jane, who is for many years is the sole caretaker of Stephen and their three children.
On a speaking engagement in France, Stephen has a stroke and goes into a coma. His doctors recommend removing life support, and tell Jane that even if he recovers (which is unlikely), he will need a tracheotomy and will never speak again, adding to his already great disability. Jane, however, is unwavering in her support, and Stephen recovers. He is fitted with the computer controlled electronic speaking system, for which he is well known today. Eventually, Stephen and Jane go their separate ways and pursue other relationships. Jane finds happiness and fulfillment as a writer and the wife of a church choir director. Stephen becomes an icon for scientific acheivement and overcoming adversity.
The film ends with Stephen, Jane, and their children going together to an audience with the queen, where Stephen’s accomplishments are honored and recognized. Afterwards, in a touching moment with his family in the queen’s private garden, Stephen gazes at Jane and his children and acknowledges the beauty of what he and Jane have created, together.
Faith & Reason
This film is based on a true story, but the script writer, Anthony McCarten, does something fascinating: He takes real people and real events and skillfully weaves them into an extended metaphor, a parable, a fable. Throughout the film, the character of Stephen Hawking represents reason, science and rational thought. The character of Jane Hawking represents faith, the arts, and intuition.
When they first meet at a party, Stephen describes his field, cosmology, as a kind of religion for intelligent atheists. She promptly informs him that she belongs to the Church of England. Later, at a dinner with Stephen’s family, Jane asks why he doesn’t believe in God. He answers that “a physicist can’t allow his calculations to be muddled by a belief in a supernatural creator.” To which Jane responds, “Sounds less of an argument against God than against physicists.”
There is a beautiful scene, as Stephen and Jane begin to fall in love, where they are at a dance. Stephen does not dance. He refuses to dance (remember, Jane represents the arts. Stephen does not dance, or sing, or play musical instruments). He says he is “happy to observe the phenomenon.” As they observe the dancers and the stars, Stephen speaks brilliantly about the properties of the stars. But later, after the dance, the two come together, underneath the stars on a bridge. Gazing up at those stars, Jane begins to recite the opening lines of Genesis…”In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the earth…” And it is at this moment, that Stephen takes her hand, and they begin to dance.
The image of the bridge is a metaphor for the coming together–the marriage–of faith and reason, religion and science. It is a beautiful dance.
In The Beginning: The Theory of Everything
Another image that occurs several times throughout the film is the image of the spiral–sometimes it’s a whirling spiral staircase, sometimes it’s cream swirling around in a cup of coffee, sometimes it’s Stephen and Jane. This image, of course, represents time, or the hands of a clock that spin round and round, but also move forward (or backwards) in time. Time, and Stephen’s illness, march relentlessly forward, while in his academic work, he attempts to trace time backwards to the origins of the universe.
The world of faith and religion, of course, has long had a narrative to explain the origins of the universe. It’s the Genesis story quoted by Jane on the bridge: “In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the earth.” I think part of the tension between the worlds of faith and science is that they are both attempting to answer the same questions, but with a slightly different emphasis. Often, they completely miss each other in passing. Science asks the question, “How did the universe come to be?” and it is utterly unsatisfied with the answer, “God created” because that doesn’t really explain much. For its part, faith asks the question, “Who brought the universe into being?” and, having answered that quite simply, seems utterly disinterested in the question of how. But Just like Stephen and Jane on the bridge, I think more often than not we are saying the same thing, using vastly different languages. Genesis (and the Bible) are not attempting to give a scientific explanation. Stephen Hawking’s theories are not meant to give meaning and purpose to our daily lives. And yet, both are attempting to give a comprehensive answer, a simple, elegant answer that explains everything in its respective field.
Helping Each Other See Clearly
There is one final image I want to discuss, and it occurs twice in the film–once toward the beginning, then once again at the end. It is the image of glasses. Stephen Hawking’s glasses, to be specific. Watch carefully in this next clip what Jane does with his glasses.
First she zaps him out of his rational analysis of the situation with something completely irrational and intuitive…like a kiss. Then she cleans his glasses, and things come into focus. She helps him to see. Faith helps reason to see clearly, and vice versa. In the film, there is a moment like this right before each one of Hawking’s greatest breakthroughs–scientific or personal. At times in the film where Stephen is at his strongest, his most triumphant, Jane disappears almost into the background, playing a supporting role. But at times where the great Stephen Hawking is at his weakest, most vulnerable, Jane is strong. On more than one occasion, she saves his life, leaving us to imagine where science and cosmology would be today, if one of its most brilliant minds had not been rescued by her faithful intervention.
In our world, faith and reason are often seen to be at odds with one another, certainly this is true of science and religion. But in this story, this parable, faith and reason meet, fall in love, and get married. It is an unconventional marriage, and not always a successful one. But they strive to understand each other, they respect and admire each other. There is a beautiful (but tense) scene where Stephen is losing his ability to speak, and Jane skillfully explains his complex theories (even ones she disagrees with) to a dinner guest using peas and potatoes as an illustration. Stephen, for his part, ends his best-selling book, “A Brief History of Time” in words that are a subtle tribute to Jane’s belief in the existence of God. “Who are we? Why are we here? If we ever learn this, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason, for then we would know the mind of God.” These are surpising words for a committed atheist.
I think we are all searching for a “Theory of Everything.” We are all searching to know the “mind of God.” It’s worth noting that Stephen Hawking, now age 73, still has not found his elusive theory of everything. Nor have we, in 2,000 years of Christianity come any closer to understanding the mind of God. If you don’t believe me, pick any two random Christians and try to get them to agree on how to interpret the mind of God in any given scripture passage.
Some people give up the search, believing that some things are just unknowable, or we’ll figure it all out when we die and get to heaven. That may be true, but I’m not a big fan of that kind of thinking. Neither was John Calvin, one of the founders of our reformed Presbyterian tradition. Like Stephen Hawking, Calvin believed in seeking truth, seeking answers to difficult questions as long as we draw breath. At 73, Stephen Hawking is still seeking, still questioning, still studying the stars, and still trying to make sense of it all. So should we.
How can we do that better? Well, if there is a moral to this story, a message to this film, it is this: People of faith and people of reason need to come together on the bridge. Rational thought and intuition need to guide each other. Scientists and artists, astrophysicists and poets need to dance with each other. Together we can help each other to see clearly.
In the beginning, darkness covered the face of the deep. Darkness. Mystery. The Unknown.
And God…the universe…omnipotence and infinity itself…in a giant explosion of brilliance, said, “Let there be light.”