Church du Soleil

On the longest day of the year, a man dressed in black rides shotgun in a cheap white Toyota, stuck in post-theater gridlock, trying to exit the Crystal Cathedral parking lot.

“All right,” he says. “Which one of these good Christians is going to let a Jew and an atheist in?”

Not the first car. Not the second. What would Jesus do? The Jew and the atheist bully their way into traffic like a creationist onto a Kansas school board.

It is the eve of a full moon, near the end of the pagan's delight, the summer solstice. Heading north, toward the Los Angeles offices of the Center For Inquiry (CFI) West, Jim Underdown—passenger, atheist and executive director of the pseudoscience-debunking, secular humanist CFI—is ready to offer a review of the evening's entertainment: “A high school religious pageant on steroids,” he says.

That would be Creation, the $12-or-so-million, two-act, multimedia, mixed-message theatrical extravaganza, conceived, written, produced and directed by Carol Schuller Milner, daughter of Cathedral founder Dr. Robert H. Schuller. Creationis scheduled to run through September 4. If all goes well, it'll run at least nine more summers. Attempting no less than to tell the story of the world's beginning, it is a self-conscious mix of the conceptual and the literal; cosmology and theology; New Age and biblical. It is, as one production person puts it, “Our Townmeets Omeets The Lion King.”

Featuring extraordinary animal puppets and impressive aerialists (playing the parts not only of Lucifer, Adam and Eve, but of free-flowing matter as well), as well as computer-generated images displayed on a 200-foot-wide screen, it's enough to have another contractor dub it “Church du Soleil.”

In the beginning, Creationfeatures “Gramps” and “Michael”; they provide narration throughout the production. Gramps is a man's man who likes to fish and smoke his pipe. Michael—his chubby, lispy descendant—is a science-loving preteen in plaid. The pair descend from the Crystal Cathedral on high, in a rowboat. A computer-generated metropolis—Chicago?—gives way to a reedy landscape, just the sort of slop where fins begat legs.

Michael speaks of electrons, protons, continental drift, chloroplasts and irradiation. Gramps cites angels, adversaries and “a story as old as life itself.” When the grandkid mentions “ecosystems,” the old man throws up air quotes, practically coughing out the word “systems.”

“Gramps represents anti-intellectualism on a huge scale,” Underdown says, his voice sounding vaguely like a Stripes-era Bill Murray. “It's that kind of thinking that keeps us from pursuing stem-cell research. It's that kind of thinking that delayed the exploration of the continents. It's that kind of thinking that kept us from knowing our bodies better, and on and on and on. He represents a tradition that is alive and well and very old. Unfortunately, it has been an anchor on human progress for probably thousands and thousands of years.

“And the kid, to extend the metaphor, should be modern thinking and science and technology and the potential that mankind has—the potential that our unique brains have. And it is numbed and quashed by this old-school thinking that has not graduated from myth and superstition.”

Underdown once put on his own play at the CFI's Steve Allen Theater. Titled Party of 13, the Last Supper-style piece is set in a Jerusalem pizza joint. Some of the apostles are female. Judas and Jesus have a beef. Everybody splits and stiffs the waitress. Outdoors on the Crystal Cathedral campus during Creation's intermission, Underdown ogles the bright light of a faux burning bush, part of a statue diorama located by temporary concession tables brimming with stuffed animals, glow balls, pepperoni pizza and the like.

“I wish I had just the money they spend on gas to keep that silly bush on fire,” he says. If the Party of 13auteur was given his own $12 million budget, how would his resulting production differ from Creation?

“It'd be a lot funnier,” he says.

* * *

Carol Schuller Milner conceived of Creationin the early 1990s. The Boulder, Colorado, resident was, as is her routine, praying, meditating and listening to music when inspiration hit. She says she felt “raptured” by the Brian Doerksen song “Creation Calls.”

The lyrics read, in part:


Milner says the message was clear: “Oh, my gosh! There's supposed to be the story of creation at the Crystal Cathedral!”

She told her father, who replied that he'd been trying to get somebody to do just that for the past couple of years. So Milner went to work. She wrote poems that became song lyrics; conceptualized gymnastic aerialists representing matter before it's been joined; discovered that Cirque du Soleil's Quidamalready existed and felt bittersweet; checked out the “Honey, I Shrunk the Audience” 3-D attraction at Walt Disney World's Epcot Center; had a dream in which she was Alice in Wonderland slipping through a keyhole; decided that Adam, he of the Garden of Eden, ought to be portrayed by an African-American. She also sensed that God was speaking to her.

“I felt like He said, 'You think you have a clue? You. Think. You. Have. A. Clue?'” Milner says, speaking by phone from the Cathedral office where she's spent most of the past six months.

Realizing that she was, in fact, clueless, was liberating, she says.

“A lot of the books in the Bible that people can't make sense of are the books I love,” Milner says. “I love to go, 'What's beyond words?' That's who I am. So the show was shaped to be interpretive, imaginistic, and to [compel the audience to] go, 'Man, what was she thinking? Where is she going?'”

Creationis the third production on the entertainment menu at Garden Grove's Crystal Cathedral, the Philip Johnson-designed architectural masterwork that serves as the studio for the HourofPowertelevision show and as a kind of modern-day Vatican, sans all the divisive encyclicals and Catholic guilt. Dr. Schuller's brand of Christianity stresses high performance and self-esteem.

Unlike the two other Cathedral joints—Glory of Christmasand Glory of EasterCreationfeatures no glory and no live camels. It does incorporate expansive video screens filled with CGI volcanoes, rain forests and savannahs, as well as a dead planet covered in what appears to be blood. It also features a Greek chorus; interpretive dance; a prerecorded score by Jeff Atmajian (fresh from the sanguinary The Passion of the Christand the sensual Chocolat), including a handful of Broadway-style musical numbers with such titles as “Lord of the Earth,” “Angelic Promises” and “Grief Song/The Wandering.”

Also on hand are majestic, gyroscopic, silk-rope-soaring aerialists who rehearsed their acrobatics in the hangar where Howard Hughes stowed the Spruce Goose. Best of all, Creationfeatures spectacular life-size (and larger) puppets created by Chiodo Bros. Productions of Burbank, whose previous work includes Team America: World Police. Among the menagerie: an ambling gorilla, a peppy kangaroo, a captivating jellyfish, a T-Rex, and one huge, trinket-adorned fish that recalls the jaguar shark of The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. A cast member in a panda bear costume steals a scene flirting with a smitten Eve. Their interaction resembles something from a Furry convention or a Flaming Lips concert. Or both.

Beyond the flash come the plot points, and the conceits behind them. Creationsets out to relate—and elaborate upon—the story of Genesis 1 and 2, with corresponding Bible citations listed in the show program for a majority of the 16 scenes.

“When I created the show, one of my goals was to try and create an environment where the ethereal and the tangible could dwell upon a supernatural, spiritual heaven,” Milner says.

“The intention of this production,” Michael Guillen, Ph.D., the show's “scientific director,” says, “was to depict the story of creation in the most accurate way that we could imagine, embracing the truth from both the Bible and science.”

In short, it's all about intelligent design, that au courant creation story phenomenon with the scientific-sounding moniker. A variation on the 200-year-old “watchmaker” conjecture, intelligent design represents a back-door attack on evolution. Karl Rove—or was it Cain?—says the key to a successful political campaign is to attack the enemy's strength. Co-opt words such as “intelligent” and “design” and “theory” and—poof!—science isn't science anymore.

“In science we're called on to believe in these things based on circumstantial evidence and a whole lot of faith,” Guillen says. He's speaking by telephone from his hotel in Rome, where he is currently filming a segment of Where Did It Come From?, a History Channel series he hosts that's scheduled to air in 2006.

Milner says Guillen is the namesake of Creation's “Michael” character. A longtime ABC News science correspondent, Guillen reported many stories—spent time in Biosphere II; hunted the Loch Ness Monster in a mini sub; visited both the North and South poles. He briefly kept company with the Raelians—the French religious movement that claimed to have worked with extraterrestrials to clone a human—and, as TheNewYorkTimesreported, pitched a cloning-related television reality show. followed up by noting that a skeptics group had given Guillen a mock award for “promoting pseudoscience and quackery.”

Before television, Guillen was a Harvard physics instructor. He's the East Los Angeles-born scion of fire-and-brimstone Pentecostal ministers, he says, adding that he gave up on God during his university years while spending 21 hours a day in a basement laboratory. Then he met a woman, started rereading the Bible and got married. It was his studies, he says, that led him back to his deity.

“By definition, you'll never see a black hole. You'll never see a parallel universe, by definition,” he says. “The only way we can know they can exist is by inferring them from circumstantial evidence. It began dawning on me that if I could believe in these things, then believing in God was no big deal.”

Guillen appeared on the HourofPowerto discuss his book, FiveEquationsthatChangedtheWorld:ThePowerandPoetryofMathematics.Milner approached Guillen and asked if he'd be willing to assist with Creation,Guillen says. (Milner remembers Guillen approaching her.) Guillen explained quantum physics to Milner, a self-described former “D” biology student. When she looked lost, he hooked up his snow-cone machine and the pair shared a snack break. His direct contributions to Creationinclude ensuring that the planets in the project's CGI solar system possess accurate spin rates and that Pangaea appears during a continental drift flashback.

In general, Guillen is drawn to the metaphorical family breakup that he perceives between faith and science.

“We, as children of that divorce, somehow have to choose between them,” he says. “I, for one, don't buy into that. I've discovered that science and religion, far from being divorced parents, are just a real power couple.”

Another couple he's big on is IQ and SQ. He invented the latter to stand for “spiritual quotient.”

Guillen elaborates that since many animals have been proved to possess intelligence, what separates Homo sapiens from fellow fauna are belief sets.

“Bambi doesn't walk through the woods praying,” Guillen says. “Bambi doesn't go through life wondering if there's a heaven or hell, and wondering if he's going to one place or another. We alone are the only creature on this planet that does all those things. We are the only creation on the planet that is spiritual.”

Guillen has coined another term—vaguely ophthalmologic, vaguely Homeric—designed to characterize the modern era, a time, he says, when some people live exclusively by blind reason and others by blind faith.

“You've heard of the Age of Dinosaurs?” Guillen says. “Well, welcome to the Age of Cyclopes.”


* * *

Throughout Creation, the word “God” is never spoken.

Instead, Milner has substituted “the presence.” She says the George Lucasian phrasing is intended as a term of intimacy.

“It's also supposed to be a term of endearment,” Milner says. “My husband is named Tim, and I probably call him Tim three times a year. Otherwise I call him 'Honey.'”

Professor Ben Hubbard, a Cal State Fullerton professor of comparative religion, and likely somebody's honey himself, isn't too surprised to hear about the use of “the presence” in lieu of “God” at a Robert H. Schuller venue.

“It probably was just a creative way of trying to make people think a little differently about what that word means,” Hubbard says.

The professor hasn't seen Creation,but in the past he's lunched with Schuller, toured the Cathedral campus and attended an event there with Middle Eastern Islamic leaders. The Grand Mufti of Syria was expected to show, Hubbard recalls, but didn't.

“That is not the kind [of outreach] that's typical of evangelicals,” Hubbard says.

Hubbard also knows a little something about the Crystal Cathedral's parent denomination, the moderate Reformed Church in America. And he's able to speak sagely about Schuller, the Norman Vincent Peale disciple and pioneering TV minister who moved to Southern California a golden anniversary ago and began conducting services at a drive-in movie theater, long before he could afford to hire architects Richard Neutra, Richard Meier and Johnson to develop his Garden Grove acreage.

“Schuller is very much a showman and a promoter and an entrepreneur-type person with a theology that's very much centered in the power of positive thinking,” Hubbard says. “He does not hew to the evangelical line. [He takes] kind of a cautious middle-of-the-road point of view for the most part.”

By way of comparison, Hubbard says, he recently attended an eighth-grade graduation ceremony at a Calvary Chapel school.

“It was a very religious ceremony, full of quotes from the scripture,” Hubbard says. “It was bad enough until they got to the science teacher who gave out the science award. [The teacher was] telling us how he had fought against evolution, that evolution was all wrong and that was an important key to their science curriculum . . . That's very typical of that approach.”

Indeed, in contemporary America it's open season on Darwin's finches. “I'm startled when I hear these statistics to the effect that something like 70 percent of Americans reject evolution, finding it godless,” Hubbard says. “It's just a bogeyman for so many people.”

Audience members who would have felt at home at the Calvary Chapel graduation might sometimes feel out of luck during Creation.The night we attended, four senior citizens departed their ticketed seats and bum-rushed the stage, settling in a few rows from the front—the house that night, a Tuesday, was perhaps 40 percent full. If they thought getting closer would make things any clearer, they were disappointed . . . and confused.

“You'd get more out of it if it was literal,” one woman, a veteran of the Gloryshows, said. One of the men with her concurred, complaining that Creationwasn't biblical enough: “Adam and Eve were born nude,” he said. “Here they had clothes on. I wanted to see a fig leaf.”

Aerialist extraordinaire C. Derrick Jones, who plays Adam three nights per week, gets a laugh out of the comment. He says he was game for nudity, so long as it wasn't too distracting. His wife, Nehara Kalev, who plays Eve those same Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays, points out that Creationis an all-ages show.

Jones and Kalev are performance artists whose marriage ceremony last year took place in midair, above a theater stage, in front of a paying audience and newspaper critics. Legendary performance artist Rachel Rosenthal ministered the event.

When Milner is informed of the nudity comments, she too chuckles, and urges a more abstract consideration. “What really is nakedness?” she says.


* * *

A week before his Crystal Cathedral trek, Jim Underdown and a physician pal visited the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) in North Santee in San Diego County, a place where the proprietors maintain that everything in the universe was created during the six days described in Genesis.

Between the ICR, Milner's play, the public-opinion polls and wavering educators, it's enough to make a secular humanist pine for Clarence Darrow.

“These are the most dangerous times in at least decades, probably since the Scopes trial,” Underdown says.

The atheist is back in the white Toyota, traveling the space somewhere between Disneyland and the California Science Center.

To pass the time, he bats around the creation stories of various cultures and religions. One features a turtle. Another aliens. A third, as seen tonight, a serpent and an apple.

Does he have a favorite?

“Yeah,” Underdown says. “It's called the Big Bang.”


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