Killer Serials: Breakthrough Ep. 1, “Fighting Pandemics”

The Sunday night television landscape is crowded, but National Geographic’s new series, Breakthrough deserves a spot in your DVR. Produced by Ron Howard and Brian Grazer and narrated by leading filmmakers and actors, 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. Read on for my and Tony Jones’ conversation about the first episode.

Ryan: If last night’s first episode is any indication, the series 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.

Dr. Ian Crozier, Ebola survivor. (photograph by Asylum Entertainment)
Dr. Ian Crozier, Ebola survivor. (photograph by Asylum Entertainment)

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.

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-occurances 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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