Dr. Irwin Moon

1907 - 1986
by David F. Coppedge

This month we want to remember a science popularizer who had an enormous impact through film. Dr Irwin Moon, founder of Sermons from Science and Moody Institute of Science (1945-1996), produced a string of movies that were extremely popular in churches during the 1950s through 1990s. They are still available from Moody Video and some are on YouTube. The legacy of Dr Moon is now stronger than ever through the work of Illustra Media.

Irwin moon demonstrates why a red blood cell has the optimal shape for carrying oxygen (Red River of Life, 1957)

Though film styles have changed over the years, the series of about 18 films by Dr Irwin Moon are still well worth watching. In these films, beginning with God of Creation (1945) through The Ultimate Adventure (1971) and beyond, Dr. Irwin Moon used science to illustrate Biblical truths. His live demonstrations of scientific principles dazzled audiences. Subjects included everything from optical illusions, time and relativity, time-lapse photography of flowers blooming, fish sounds, atomic bombs, honeybees, Venus flytraps, blood vessels and almost everything else under the sun in chemistry, biology and physics.

At one moment he could be frying an egg on a cold piece of wood. Another he could be shattering a glass with sound. And another he could be demonstrating how time speeds up or slows down at relativistic speeds, showing how a rattlesnake “sees” heat, or taking the viewer inside a beating heart.

Dr Moon demonstrates electricity coming out his hands in Facts of Faith (1956).

Sometimes Dr. Moon put his own life at risk with “don’t try this at home” demonstrations. In Signposts Aloft he flew over the Sahara to a long-lost aircraft that crashed during World War II. In Windows of the Soul he trained his own eyes to see with upside-down lenses, even riding a motorcycle and flying an airplane with the inverted vision his brain had learned to correct. And in Facts of Faith, he wowed viewers by sending a million volts through his own body, with lightning bolts emerging from his fingertips.

Expressions of the beauty of creation and the wisdom of God were never far from his lips. A former pastor and Bible teacher, Dr Moon knew more about science than many scientists. Secular versions of the films were popular for years in high schools and colleges. “Sermons from Science” auditoriums were well attended at several Olympic Games.

A brief history of Sermons from Science and Dr. Moon’s colorful life story is featured at the Wonders of Science website. Dr. Moon’s unique method of ministry often struck a chord with military men, college science majors, and other groups that might not be prone to seek out a church.

Fortunately, Dr. Moon’s vision of using science for God’s glory is carried forward in two avenues today. For decades now, Dean Ortner has continued the ministry of stage demonstrations (currently named Wonders of Science) to illustrate the connection between science and spirit. Earning the nickname The Million Volt Man, Dean has climaxed hundreds of live shows with the risky demonstration of sending electrical energy powerful enough to ignite lumber through his whole body. In his traveling programs to military bases, schools and other sites, he sends messages through a beam of light, freezes his shadow, and does many other amazing acts – each demonstration wrapped around the gospel.

Dean Ortner dazzles the audience with his “million volt man” demonstration at the 20th Anniversary celebration of Illustra Media in 2017 (photo by DFC). Note the lightning bolts emerging from his fingertips while the piece of wood he is holding burst into flame from the electrical energy racing across his body from the Oudin Oscillator he is standing on.

The End … But a New Beginning

The film ministry, too, is stronger than ever. Just before MIS folded, the production crew combined its last Moody-sponsored films into a three-part set called The Wonders of God’s Creation. Another jewel is the duo Journeys to the Edge of Creation about planets, stars and galaxies. After Moody Bible Institute discontinued Moody Institute of Science in 1996, and its large film production facility in Whittier was sold, the team members, all located in southern California, prayed about how to keep their momentum going.  In 1997, under the leadership of Jim Adams, producer Lad Allen and editor Jerry Harned gathered a group to form a new non-profit company called Discovery Media Productions. With no resources but charitable donations, know-how and a few DVD sales, the team—working out of their homes—began issuing a steady stream of high-quality films on science and the Christian life. The first five documentaries were made in partnership with Al Nader of Questar Media.

Around 2002, the team made friends with the Discovery Institute in Seattle, Washington. To avoid confusion as an independent company, the southern California team changed its name to Illustra Media. In partnership with leading scientists at the Discovery Institute, Illustra Media began making a string of influential productions on Intelligent Design. The films Unlocking the Mystery of Life (2002), The Privileged Planet (2004), and  Darwin’s Dilemma (2010), form a rock-solid trilogy refuting Darwinism and exhibiting the power of intelligent design theory for science. During its initial decade, Illustra also partnered with former atheist law reporter Lee Strobel, putting his best-selling books into film with The Case for a Creator (2004), The Case for Christ (2005) and The Case for Faith (2006), each one narrated by Lee Strobel himself. These films went beyond Dr Moon’s method of drawing spiritual analogies from science. Instead, scientific evidence was amassed to argue against Darwinism that the universe and life were, indeed, designed by an all-wise, all-powerful Creator, as the Bible says.

Working by faith with help from loyal supporters, Illustra Media has surpassed the outreach of Dr. Irwin Moon’s early films with state-of-the-art productions of high quality and exciting content. Illustra Media produced one new full-length documentary a year in its first 20 years. These films have been translated into over 20 languages and are currently having a major impact around the world. Especially exciting are reports from former Soviet bloc countries that large crowds, hungry for meaning after decades of atheist propaganda, are gathering to watch these films and responding in large numbers. A million copies translated into Mandarin Chinese were also carried into mainland China by visitors to Hong Kong.

Flight: The Genius of BirdsIllustra Media completed a stunning nature trilogy called The Design of Life in 2015. The first documentary, Metamorphosis: The Beauty and Design of Butterflies was completed in June 2011. It tells the amazing story of butterflies, particularly the Monarch butterfly, which migrates thousands of miles and undergoes a remarkable life cycle inexplicable by evolution. It was followed by Flight: The Genius of Birds in 2013, and Living Waters: Intelligent Design in the Oceans of Earth in 2015. Like its predecessors, these films are graphic, sonic and educational masterpieces, on par with productions by Nova, Nature and National Geographic. Original animations and music add to their professional appeal.

Sales of hardcopy, first VHS then DVD, were the bread and butter for Illustra Media for the first 20 years, along with donations. But as demand for hardcopy declined in favor of streaming, donations became the sole source of income for the company. Simultaneously, appetite for full-length documentaries switched to short films in the YouTube era. People expected to see anything they wanted for free, any time they wanted it. Indeed, pirated copies of Illustra films started popping up all over YouTube. It was hopeless to try to stop it. Each hardship, though, can be an opportunity in disguise.

Stepping out on faith, Lad Allen and Jerry Harned with the board’s assent posted copies of the classic ID films on its official YouTube channel, including the foreign language versions. In 2019, Illustra launched a website called “The John 10:10 Project” that features over a hundred short films people can watch for free. Some of them are segments from the older documentaries, but many are brand new, under the categories “Awesome Wonders” and “2-Minute Wonders.” In 2021, during the Covid-19 pandemic, Lad and Jerry published one new short film a month. These have direct appeal to the current generation and are easily shared on social media.

The Lord has provided for this exciting initiative in difficult times, and as of this writing, there are subscribers in 125 countries. The “rest of the story” remains to be told.

Conclusion

Dr Moon’s story is an inspiring example of the power of one man’s vision to use creative means, geared to the times, to reach millions of people with the unchanging message of the gospel. His vision was passed on to others who have accomplished even greater things. It prompts us to end this story with an old but clever challenge, “What on earth are you doing, for heaven’s sake?”

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