Faith-Based Initiatives for the Star of Bethlehem in Secular Places


One of the points I have tried to drive home with my research on the various hypotheses about what was the Star of Bethlehem has been that it is more a religious rather than scientific exercise. In my 2012 article for Zygon I showed how naturalistic explanations for the Star only started when miracles were becoming ridiculous to the scholarly and had to mad-dash for anything to save face. Now the project is in the hands almost exclusively of those that are not Bible scholars or historians. I also showed examples of how such research was directly said to be used for apologetic of faith-based ends.

In my book, The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View, I expanded a bit on this when I also looked at the use of the UFO explanation for the Star. An additional point was made by the author of my preface, Bob Berman. He noted how planetaria had been pushing this show for decades and either didn’t care or knew that it was impossible. It was popular and traditional, so that seems to be enough reason for these things to last.

I haven’t stopped looking for sources, and I just came across another one where the director of a major US museum states rather clearly that the presentations are, in part, to renew the faith in those watching or listening. The location in question is the Franklin Institute, a notable museum in Philadelphia named after its famous resident, Ben “100 Dollar” Franklin. The Institute has had a journal since a very early point in its history, going back to the 1820s and continues today. As is normal, the director of the museum can have some space to editorialize and the like.

In a Dec 1954 issue of the Journal of the Franklin Institute, director A.C. Carlton provided a note about the museum’s Star of Bethlehem presentation. Among other things, he said

To those who see the demonstration for the first time there comes the awed realization that here is a new method for replenishing faith by reviving old traditions and investing them with new vigor.

Carlton noted that for those who had seen the show before only need to be reminded of its December traditional presentation. In other words, it is a show that brings in an audience and it does so because it “replenish[es] faith” in old traditions. That is hardly a secular goal, let alone a scientific one.

That it strikes a popular chord may also be a clue as to how this show became a part of the standard planetary curriculum since the 1930s. Instead of an astronomer or historian of science, it appears to be that the first planetarium show about the Star of Bethlehem came from a certain James Stokley (1900-1989). Educated with a bachelors in education and a masters in psychology from U Penn, Stokley became a science news reporter in DC for a while before visiting planetaria around the world and being inspired to become a director of such a place. The planetarium was hot and new in the 1920s in Europe and America, and considering how massive and amazing the Zeiss projectors were, no wonder it captured his imagination.

In the 1930s, it seems his dreams came true as he was a major presenter in planetaria such as the Fels Planetarium of the Franklin Institute and later the Buhl Planetarium. According to his obit he had a column in Science News for over 50 years and spent most of the 1930s working at Fels. It seems there he developed the first Star of Bethlehem show, which proved to be very popular, as noted by the Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers and in Theaters of Time and Space: American Planetaria, 1930-1970. It seems that Stokley, because of his journalism background, knew what chords would strike with an audience and how to be a good showman, so it seems that it takes someone of such background to present something that would be controversial to experts but great for laymen.

(Also of note, Stokley gave the first planetarium show even viewed by Albert Einstein, and Stokley later became a professor at my alma mater, Michigan State.)

You can read this good article on Buhl Planetarium’s Star of Bethlehem show and its history, again noting the influence of Stokley. I think I have a new line in researching the influence of the content of planetarium shows and how religion has become such a big part of what is seen during the holidays. At this time though, it seems that a significant reason why the Star of Bethlehem has become such as big part of early and recent holiday science shows is because it proved to grab an audience, especially when the show is well-crafted and pulls on the faithful heartstrings.

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