Review of The Sacred Science, Directed by Nicholas Polizzi
By COYLE NEAL
Nicholas Polizzi’s The Sacred Science takes eight people out of the West and into the Amazon (the jungle, not the website—though that would possibly have been a better movie) and puts them under the care of tribal shamans. The goal is to see if there is medicinal and curative wisdom to be found in traditional cultures with access to different tools than we have here in civilization. Along the way, claims the blurb, “these patients are forced to confront not only their physical ailments, but their own spiritual and psychological barriers in the process. Five will return with real results, two will return disappointed, and one won’t come back at all.” (From the IMDB page.)
Before even discussing the movie, a few points need to be made to clarify this potentially misleading claim made by the film. First, nobody was cured. Diabetes, Parkinson’s, and cancer all left the jungle with the patients in question. Even the gentleman with “alcoholism” listed as his disease didn’t claim to have overcome it. Second, several of these individuals (I’m not sure about the alcoholic) had been consistently refusing Western medical care. For example, all three cancer patients had refused chemo, radiation, and surgery. They had, for all intents and purposes, tried nothing before moving to the middle of the rainforest to try a more natural approach. Third, even for the patients who were on meds (the diabetic and Parkinson’s patient, for example), many of the “improvements” they experienced seemed to be the result of improved diet and activity—though of course the potions and unguents may have played a role as well. The gentleman with diabetes, for example, noticed that his blood sugar had actually dropped to manageable levels. And while it might be convenient to assume that it was as a result of the work and techniques of the local shaman, even as a layman I have to assume that replacing the standard American diet with the standard Amazonian tribal diet is going to lower anyone’s blood sugar. I am not a doctor, but I do eat. And I know the difference between a diet of Twinkies (bad for diabetics) and a diet of roots and berries (good for diabetics).
Fourth, it’s a bit unclear exactly what kind of philosophy or theology is at work along with the “medicine” in question. The narrator and filmmakers seem to advocate a New Age-y pantheism of some sort, while presumably the shamans are less into the New Age stuff and more into their traditional tribal religions (the chants and prayers they use aren’t translated in the subtitles, so I don’t know for sure). As a result, my comments are directed at the filmmakers, not the native peoples in question.
All of which has probably already told you what I think of the film overall: it’s fairly bland and disappointing. Not that it’s badly made (production values are perfectly acceptable for an indie documentary), it just leaves everything that had the potential to be interesting unresolved. Can the elixir made from “the creeper plant of love” (easily the best line in the movie) really do what Western drugs can’t? Is there some magic concoction in the rainforest that will cure cancer? Are the tribal peoples of South America sitting on a gold mine of undiscovered curatives that are just waiting to be mass produced for the betterment of mankind? Well… maybe. But then again, maybe not. Again, no one is cured and no conclusions are reached by the movie. We’re pretty much left right where we started.
Even more, the promised spiritual side of the film never really materializes. The grandiose claims promised by its ad campaign (and the back of the DVD box) never go beyond occasional trite musings of a vaguely New Age nature. (Again, mostly from the film maker and “Roman,” a transplant to the Amazon who has dedicated himself to pursuing natural healing with the tribal shamans.) This may have been what disappointed me most—I was hoping for fire dances and spell-casting and sacrifices to idols, and… and… well, okay, maybe I don’t know exactly what I was really expecting (heck, I don’t know anything about the Amazon). But what I actually got was a neo-hippie passing out protein shakes and self-help mantras—something I can see at Whole Foods any time I want.
And yet, there are a couple of points in the movie that are worthy of both attention and response by Christians.
First, it is the both implicit and explicit assumption of the film that everything we need for our physical and spiritual health can be found in nature. With the right combination of searching and respect, we can find in the natural world all that we need to bring healing to our body and soul. And of course Christians can recognize that there is some truth to this. In nature we find both the basic materials we use for our physical life, and a moral picture of the glory of God (cf Psalm 19:1-6). There is both physical and spiritual food in the natural world. (If you want to read a wonderful Christian reflection on the spiritual lessons of nature, check out Husbandry Spiritualized by John Flavel.) But, there is also sin in the world. Nature is not all good, it groans under the curse (Romans 8:22). For every healing herb it provides, there are a dozen poisonous plants waiting to kill us. For every picture of God’s glory on display, an image of evil is right alongside. As a result, we can’t look to nature for any kind of final provision for our needs. The naturalism portrayed by The Sacred Science does nothing more than turn us to something that needs healing and redemption as much as we do.
Second, the ideas about death in the film are confused, to say the least. At one point, a character says:
Western societies have demonized death. But why? Due to fear and ignorance. Because there’s something to be afraid of after death. What is it? What is God? They are truly afraid of God, and He is life itself. So they stay away from death, and by doing so they stay away from life as well.
Compare this to the thoughts of the Apostle Paul on death:
“Where, o death, is your victory? Where, o death, is your sting?” (I Corinthians 15:55-57)
Christians can both recognize that death is an evil and achieve victory over it through the cross of Jesus Christ. To some extent, even the folks in the movie realize that death isn’t quite the neutral event it is declared to be. After all, they have traveled all the way to the Amazon in order to delay death, however temporarily. And since the shamans try to help heal them rather than tell them that death is just a part of life and then send them on their way, we have to assume that on at least some level everyone involved in this film acknowledges that death is a bad thing to be resisted.
Here’s where Christians especially have much to say to the world, particularly to those interested in the relationship between nature, spirituality, and death. Death is something to be feared in nature. It is not just a part of life, it is a wicked aberration—a hideous oozing sore on the scarred face of what was once a good creation. And yet, there’s worse news than that. We are all sinners; we have all offended a perfectly holy and just God, and the idea of standing in His presence and receiving his righteous condemnation is something that should make us all tremble. Following natural death we have the promise of eternal spiritual death if something isn’t done to save us.
Fortunately, salvation has been accomplished by that same holy and just God. Rather than leave us to face the spiritual and natural death that we deserve, God himself became a man in the person of Jesus Christ. He lived the perfect, sinless life that you and I should have lived, and on the cross he died the death that you and I should have died. As a result, we who repent and believe can have his life and death applied to us and thereby receive a right relationship with God—including the promise that we will never face the spiritual death we deserve. And once we’ve got that promise, the fear of natural death loses all its moral force. The victory and sting of death are removed and we can boldly face everything the natural world can throw at us. Disease, disaster, war, famine, all the ills of the world can be confronted by Christians with the confidence that comes from the total and complete forgiveness achieved by Christ.
This is probably a longer review than this mostly-mediocre movie deserved—and that’s without even getting to the main point of the film (Western medicine vs. non-Western medicine). For what it’s worth, I tend to prefer Western medicine, but am perfectly willing to keep looking (or, you know, let other people keep looking—it’s not like I’m willing to go to the Amazon myself) for alternative remedies.
Overall, I do not recommend this movie. There are legitimate questions to be raised about the way we do medicine and think about health in the West, but this film isn’t the place to find either clear articulation of those questions or the answers we need.