Science Corner: A Loaf of Bread, a Container of Milk, and a Unicorn

Frame from Unicorn Store of Samuel L Jackson and Brie Larson standing side by side, looking up to the left. They are in the abandoned church set.
Financed and filmed before Captain Marvel, Unicorn Store nevertheless benefited from the shared cast. (Photo © Netflix)

Unicorn Store, the tale of a frustrated art student offered the opportunity to adopt a unicorn, exists well outside the world of science fiction stories I typically review here. Yet as I watched, it struck me just how much the experience of Brie Larson’s Kit reflected that of believers sharing their faith in an incarnate and resurrected Savior with a world increasingly dependent on science and technology. It didn’t take a lot of digging; religious commentary is not just interpretation of subtext but explicitly in the text. Still, I was surprised because those elements were absent from the promotion.

All promotion for the film may be absent from your world. Filmed in 2016 under the direction of star Brie Larson, it disappeared after a festival appearance only to emerge on Netflix streaming earlier this month. The cast, which includes Samuel L. Jackson, Joan Cusack, Bradley Whitford and relative newcomer Mamoudou Athie, deploy their ample charisma to carry a fairly straightforward plot and familiar tropes about floundering young adults. Larson is convincing as someone who is intelligent and thoughtful and whimsical enough to entertain the possibility that unicorns just might be real.

You know what animals are real? Pigs. Last week they made headlines because scientists were able to preserve some cellular and tissue functions of their brains after the pigs were killed. The result has ethical and philosophical implications and possibly medical applications aside. The story also highlights just how wide the gap is between our current understanding of what is biologically possible and the idea of a man being crucified and returning to life. By comparison, an equid with a tusk, horn, or mono-antler seems banally plausible.

The film draws a direct line between the plausibility of resurrection and unicorns, as Kit compares her faith in unicorns to believing in Jesus. Although never commented on, the unicorn store clearly operates out of an abandoned church. Kit even frames the allure of a unicorn in terms of unconditional love. Meanwhile, everyone else around her reacts with skepticism, wondering if she is deluding herself to meet some psychological need, or worse. Science has not revealed the existence of unicorns, and any reported encounters with them are considered myth.

Is this how skeptics view Christians, as believing in the equivalent of unicorns? I’m fairly certain the answer is yes, at least for some. I think I can understand that perspective, but I’m not ready to acquiesce just yet. Certainly we can point to the more detailed, specific, and corroborated accounts of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, compared to descriptions of encounters with unicorns. We can refer to the more extensive and dramatic transformation Jesus has wrought on the world. Not everyone has or will find such evidence compelling, but at the very least it demonstrates a qualitative distinction between belief in unicorns and belief in Jesus’ resurrection.

We can also make a more pragmatic appeal. Suppose I am delusional like Kit. Suppose that many humans are, in one way or another. Are all delusions equal? Belief in unicorns seems fairly benign, but at least as depicted in the film it is also somewhat isolating, calling believers into a private fantasy realm where they alone benefit from unconditional love. Following Jesus, however, calls us together, to extend unconditional love to each other. It calls us into community, into proximity, and that can be challenging. Perhaps paradoxically, that is one of the reasons I think there is truth to Christianity–it is not always easy or comforting. Jesus does not lead us down the path of least resistance. Still, those difficulties can bear fruit for ourselves and crucially for others, Christians and not. So while I believe there are good reasons to think Jesus really did die and return to life, if I’m really just opting for one delusion among many, it seems like a pretty good one to choose.

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Andy Walsh

Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two elementary school students, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog. His book Faith across the Multiverse is available from Hendrickson.

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4 Comments

  • Tom Grosh IV commented on April 26, 2019 Reply

    Thank you Andy! After your review, I couldn’t resist watching the short film (1h 31 min).* Unicorn Store brought back a deluge of memories of the self-centered imaginary creatures / creations / stories which dominated my universe before fully embracing (and being embraced by) Jesus. No doubt the fictional writing of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien (read as a child) pointed me in the direction of deeper stories, preparing “the soil of my soul” to be surprised by the reality of Jesus as Lord and Savior during my first year at college.

    What as a high school student led me to resist the B-I-B-L-E which I had been taught and heard since a child? I wanted to be intelligent and grown up. I had bought the modern tale that the Bible is little more than a piece of Western history used to accomplish various purposes (for good and ill) and it was time to move on / upgrade. But what story satisfactorily replaces the Biblical story, providing a framework / lens for a life worth living? Yes, there are plenty of tales (including expanding ones offered by The Avengers, Men in Black, Star Wars, etc.) to provide temporary personal satisfaction, Yes, I can imagine myself as the master of my own universe through atheism, relationships, or success. But what offers purpose, meaning, and direction on a larger scale? Dare we declare The Way, The Truth, and The Life — even to our very self, close friends, family — during such a time as this? Let alone the implications of Jesus as The Way, The Truth, and The Life (including resurrection life).

    Easter reminds us of the cost Jesus and later his disciples paid to bring us a glimpse of the real world. Are we up for taking such a sacrifice — even to our very self, close friends, family — or are we filled with fear in a culture of self-satisfaction / comfort? Thank you for keeping the conversation going through posts such as this and https://blog.emergingscholars.org/2019/04/science-book-review-how-the-body-of-christ-talks/. To God be the glory!

    *You’re quite a salesperson Andy 😉

    • drandrewwalsh@gmail.com'
      Andy Walsh commented on May 2, 2019 Reply

      I’m glad you got a chance to check out the movie and found it worthwhile. I think the question of what story satisfactorily replaces the Biblical story is an apt one. While I don’t think it is the only sense in which the Biblical story is valuable, but I think one of its merits is how it has persisted through the ages. Pragmatically, there is something to be said about a story rich enough to attract the attention of so many people and to provide them something of worth. And part of that richness is that the story itself spans so much time and so many situations.

      I’ve expressed to you before my disappointment that the Star Wars films have opted to revisit similar stories rather than explore new possibilities. Many other popular stories cover the same themes. I think the Marvel Universe has shown some interest in taking less traveled narrative roads, but even then I expect it to maintain a bounded scope.

  • hannah.eagleson@intervarsity.org'
    Hannah Eagleson commented on May 1, 2019 Reply

    I also seem to recall unicorns being associated with Christ in some medieval symbolism, with one example briefly explained here: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/metpublications/The_Unicorn_Tapestries

    I wonder if that’s one source the scriptwriters were drawing on.

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