‘My Octopus Teacher’: Good and Bad Ways We Learn From Nature – Brett McCracken

Recently nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary feature, Netflix’s My Octopus Teacher has become a viral phenomenon. The popular, quirky nature documentary hit the spot for many families looking for an escapist perspective during the pandemic. Directed by Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed, the film spends a year with South African filmmaker and naturalist Craig Foster as he “befriends” and learns from an octopus in the cold-water kelp forests near the Cape Town coast.

While at times cringeworthy, the documentary is also a helpful reminder that nature—God’s creation—can indeed teach us. The Bible says as much (Ps. 19:1; Rom. 1:20). Within the context of God-oriented worship and learning, nature is a gift for our wisdom and joy (that’s why it occupies the third most prominent place in my Wisdom Pyramid). Yet removed from this context and situated within a purely materialist worldview, the lessons of nature have diminishing returns.

How Nature Teaches

Why look to nature for wisdom? In the chapter on nature in The Wisdom PyramidI suggest it’s because the created work of any artist helps teach us things about that creator. John Calvin described creation as a “large and splendid mansion gorgeously constructed and exquisitely furnished,” and everything in it points to the builder.

What does the furniture of the natural world reveal about its builder, God? What kind of God creates cephalopods who float through underwater kelp forests elegantly and protect themselves ingeniously by assembling patchwork armor of multicolored shells?

Within the context of God-oriented worship and learning, nature is a gift for our wisdom and joy.

Throughout Scripture, we see that wisdom can be found by closely observing God’s handiwork: “Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise” (Prov. 6:6). “But ask the beasts, and they will teach you; the birds of the heavens, and they will tell you; or the bushes of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you” (Job 12:7–8).

Jesus constantly points his listeners to insights from creation, whether to “consider the ravens” (Luke 12:24), or the lilies (Luke 12:27), or sheep, wolves, serpents, and doves (Matt. 10:16), or hens and chicks (Luke 13:34), to name a few of many examples. From the trees that bookend the Bible, to the vine-and-branches imagery Jesus uses to describe our life in him (John 15:1–17), Scripture reminds us that God’s creation has much to teach us.

Though problematic as a replacement of Scripture’s special revelation, the general revelation of God’s creation can be fruitful as a supplement to help us better grasp biblical truth. God’s world—which we can see, hear, smell, touch, taste—can help his Word sink in. I have written about how trees, rivers, thunderstorms, and coastlines can help us understand theological ideas, and the more time I spend in creation, the more I see that it has to teach.

When ‘Nature’ Leads Us Astray

But learning from nature is not without risks, especially if it becomes severed from or stressed above Scripture’s revelation. My Octopus Teacher represents at least two ways we can turn nature into a false teacher.

1. When we blur differences between humans and other creatures

Certainly it’s problematic when humans downplay their interdependence with other creatures. This can lead to poor environmental stewardship as well as a skewed, damaging perception of one’s body (e.g., as a blank canvas we can surgically or hormonally modify as we please).

But it’s also problematic when humans emphasize their creatureliness to the point that we see ourselves as no more significant than anything else in nature—whether a whale or a weed.

This is an error Foster falls into in Octopus. He anthropomorphizes the octopus, reading into its mollusk existence human emotion and relational attachment (“I totally trust this human”), including a virtuous valor that leads her to “die for her offspring” (Foster doesn’t mention that some octopuses are cannibals).

Foster tries to make the octopus more human, but he also tries to make himself more like an octopus. “I want to be more like an amphibious animal,” he says, describing why he swims in the cold-water kelp forests without a wetsuit or oxygen tank. “It helps tremendously to have no barrier to that environment.”

At one point he describes starting to “think like an octopus,” nothing that “our lives were mirroring each other” and “the boundaries between her and I began to dissolve.”

Yet the boundaries between Foster and the octopus (him having to come up to the surface to breathe, to name one) are important and beautiful. Blurring the differences between an octopus and a man does a disservice to both. We actually learn more about a thing in nature when we don’t force it into our categories immediately, but let it be the exotic and unique thing it is.

Blurring the differences between an octopus and a man does a disservice to both.

My Octopus Teacher reminded me at times of Werner Herzog’s documentary Grizzly Man, which also explored a “man-beast” relationship (Timothy Treadwell and grizzly bears). Treadwell lived among bears and came to see himself as one. He was convinced it was a mutually loving, peaceful relationship—until one day when his grizzly friend ate him.

Both Octopus and Grizzly are ostensibly focused on educating the public about creatures—but the anthropomorphizing tendencies in both cases hinder, rather than help, our knowledge of these beasts.

2. When we worship creation rather than its Creator

We also demean nature—and miss its lessons—when we burden it with a transcendent weight it wasn’t meant to bear.

In Octopus, Foster admits his relationship with the cephalopod became “a bit of an obsession.” Born out of a midlife crisis of sorts, and a desire to be “inside the world of nature” rather than outside, Foster’s forays in the kelp forest became a hallowed escape. The octopus became an idol. The ocean became a sacred space. Near the film’s end, Foster describes being in nature as “extremely liberating,” a space where one’s cares and worries dissolve. 

Yet if we put this burden on nature, it will always disappoint. Being in nature is a beautiful, refreshing thing that can certainly enrich life, but it is not the answer for life’s ultimate meaning. It is not worthy of our worship. Only God is. 

Being in nature is a beautiful, refreshing thing that can enrich life, but it is not the answer for life’s ultimate meaning. It is not worthy of our worship. Only God is.

It’s good to be awed by nature. As Foster finds wonder and inspiration in sea creatures and the mysteries of wild places, so should we. But our wonder at nature should lead us to worship the Creator, not the creation. An octopus is not a god; it’s a gift that should lead us to praise the Giver. 

Forum, Not Focal Point

Christians should watch films like this for the same reason they should study science: It’s an opportunity to put a magnifying glass on God’s creation—to glorify him by better understanding the diverse wonders of the world he made. We should love, protect, and find wonder in animals, recognizing that they (like us) are God’s creatures and thus precious.

But we should do this while also recognizing that humans have something quite significant that other creatures don’t: the image of God. To say we humans are not the same as monkeys is not to diminish the beauty and value of monkeys; it’s simply to respect God’s good design.

Should Christians study and love the natural world? Absolutely. But it should not be a focal point of our worship as much as a forum for it—a grandiose concert hall where we can join our voices with the stars, skies, fireflies, fishes, and everything else: “All creatures of our God and King, lift up your voice and with us sing. . . . O praise him!”

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