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R&V At the Movies: Fathom

Humpback whales feeding in a bay in Antarctica. Credit to Rod Long

Every language around the globe has a way of introducing ourselves to each other. Carried by our unique voices in our unique tones, we say with words what our vocal cords communicate through our fingerprint of sound:

“Hello! I’m Sarah.”

“Bonjour! Je suis Sarah!”

“Hola, soy Sarah.”

“Whup, Sarah.”

What was that last one? According to American acoustic ecologist Dr. Michelle Fournet, that’s the humpback whale’s way of saying hello, this is me, here I am! 

Fathom: What to Expect

The AppleTV documentary, Fathom, follows two scientists on either side of the globe as they listen in on and enter into the conversations and songs of one of the oldest and most mysterious creatures on our planet, the humpback whale. 

While Dr. Fournet aims to see whether the “whup” sound is actually a whale’s unique way of identifying itself to others in the region, on the other side of the world, Dr. Ellen Garland is tracking the way whalesong travels from region to region across thousands of miles of ocean, moving like the Beatles invasion and shaping whale culture the same way as “All You Need Is Love.”

Fathom is no fast-paced thriller but instead documents the structured, systematic, scientific approach to field research with all its doubts and disruptions. It captures the passion and love of the scientist for her life’s work, her desire to add just one more small bit of knowledge to the vast library of what we know so far from the mysterious land of what we’ve yet to discover. As the two scientists literally plumb the depths of the ocean to showcase more ways we are connected to this complex planet and its creatures, they lead us into greater wonder and awe for the work of our Creator.

Finding the Love: Faithifying Your Viewing

When we’re listening for the voice of the Lord, it’s important for us to know what God sounds like. What is God’s “whup”? Can we distinguish God’s voice from the noise of so many others who are vying for our ears?

Sometimes what we think is God speaking is not God after all. In Genesis 22:1, God called to Abraham by name, “Abraham!” and Abraham answered, “Here I am!” The Hebrew word used for God at the beginning of this chapter is elohim; it is a plural word for God and it’s used to reference God over 2,600 times in the Bible—occasionally in reference to other gods. Elohim tests Abraham by asking him to sacrifice his son, Isaac. So Abraham proceeds up the mountain with his son, prepared to do whatever Elohim asks of him. Then, with urgency, the Angel of the Lord cried out, “Abraham! Abraham!” 

When I call my kid by their first name twice, I mean business. Here, in verse 11, the Angel of the Lord is no longer called Elohim. The name used here instead is Jehovah, which is the proper name for Israel’s One True God. Other gods (elohim) in this world will ask you to sacrifice your son to appease them, but not this God (Jehovah).

For centuries during the time of Judges, people did whatever they wanted and the word of the Lord was silent. Finally, Hannah gave birth to Samuel, her son lent to her from the Lord. Samuel studied under the direction of the priest, Eli. He heard a voice calling him in the night. “Here I am,” he called out to Eli, thinking it was his mentor needing him in the early morning hours. Three times God called out to Samuel, with greater urgency, and three times Samuel thought it was Eli. 

Finally, Eli realized what was happening and told Samuel that it was the Lord calling him. He told him to go listen and wait. A fourth time, God called, “Samuel, Samuel!” and finally, Samuel replied, “Speak, for your servant is listening” (1 Samuel 3:10 NIV). Sure, now you’re listening! 

Dr. Michelle Fournet and Natalie Mastick Jensen in Fathom.  Image © Apple TV+ (2021).

Over and over again, the people in Scripture miss the sound of God’s voice. “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” The two disciples on the road to Emmaus remarked to one another after having spent all day and evening in the presence of the risen Lord (Luke 24:13-32).

The audio recording against which we ought to weigh the words we hear is the voice of Jesus Christ. Does this word we’ve heard, this call on our lives, this voice in the darkness, this inclination, this gut feeling, does it sound like the Lord of the Good News, does it sound like God Incarnate, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace? Do we, as Jesus said over and over again, have ears to hear the One who calls us by name, the One who declares us his? (Isaiah 43:1 NIV).

Every single day, God’s voice cries out, “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me” (Revelations 3:20 NIV).

Do we hear God’s “whup” and turn, and rejoice? 

When we aren’t listening to the One who calls our name, when we’re unable to identify God’s voice in the noise, God speaks to and through those who are attuned: “I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me; I was found by those who did not seek me. To a nation that did not call on my name, I said, ‘Here am I, here am I’” (Isaiah 65:1 NIV).

May we be a people who gather together with one voice and one song, in harmony with the God who calls us by name. May our melody join the chorus of all creation, which sings God’s praise, and together make our world beautiful.

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