It’s a Wonderful Universe

How a Shift in Perspective Can Renew a Healthy Sense of Wonder

In 1943, American author Philip Van Doren Stern wrote a short story and named it The Greatest Gift. The story was loosely based on Charles Dickens’s classic, A Christmas Carol. Stern tried to sell the story to a Hollywood studio, but when he failed to secure a buyer, he had 200 copies printed up and mailed them to family and friends as Christmas cards.

Three months later, RKO Studios bought the story for $10,000. Intending to turn it into a movie, RKO commissioned three scripts, but for one reason or another, no development proceeded beyond that. The story gathered dust for two years until an RKO executive brought it to the attention of producer Frank Capra. Capra took it off RKO’s hands for the same sum of $10,000.

RKO threw in the three scripts for free, but Capra wrote a new script to tell the story as he thought it should be told. Frank Capra believed in the value of the individual – that every life mattered. He always sought to make films that were positive and uplifting, and while they were generally popular with audiences, Hollywood critics said his films were too sentimental, deriding them as just so much “Capra-corn.”

A Christmas Classic Is Born

Capra renamed the story, It’s a Wonderful Life, and the film premiered on December 20, 1946.

It's hard to imagine that anyone could reach the age of, say, 20 and not have seen It’s a Wonderful Life, but I won’t give away the whole story, just in case. Suffice it to say that George Bailey, the winsome lifelong resident of Bedford Falls has fallen into a pit of despair. His life hasn’t turned out the way he’d planned, and he’s beginning to feel like everything has been for naught.

A long series of unfortunate events drives him to a bridge, where he stands overlooking turbulent waters below, snow swirling in the dark all around him. He’s not a praying man, but he leans on the rail and eeks out a prayer. “If you’re up there and you can hear me, show me the way.” Unbeknownst to George, his family and friends all over town have gotten wind of the dark turn in his disposition, and they’re praying for him, too, in that moment.

At this point in the story, Capra gives us a 1940s-era, Hollywood-style characterization of the goings-on in the heavenlies. He used a black and white photograph of a group of galaxies called Stephan’s Quintet to depict three angels discussing how to respond to all these prayers for one George Bailey. It’s this discussion that sets the story in motion.

The Heavens Speak

Three quarters of a century later, from our technologically advanced frame of reference, the scene depicting galaxies talking to one another may well seem little corny, but it makes for a great opportunity to take a new and improved look at Stephan’s Quintet and consider whether the heavens do indeed speak, and how or what they might have to say to us in our moments of despair. Thanks to the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), launched on Christmas Day, 2021, we have a marvelously more detailed image of Stephan’s Quintet.

Below are images of Stephan’s Quintet as it appeared in It’s a Wonderful Life in 1946 and as it appears to us today through the eyes of JWST:

From It’s a Wonderful Life

The detail from JWST is just stunning. Note that these are five galaxies we’re looking at. They are located between 200-400 million light years away from us. But don’t fail to notice also that all those “stars” behind the five galaxies are galaxies as well! Notice the variety of shapes, colors, and sizes, and marvel at the expanse under which we live, breathe, and have our being.

I remember the first time I saw the Milky Way galaxy. It was out in a dark part of the Arizona desert, and I was just mesmerized. Earlier this year, I was out in another part of the Arizona desert, and I was able to see Jupiter, and, with the aid of a basic set of binoculars, two of its moons. Again, I just looked up and marveled. Why is the night sky so fascinating?

The Power of a Shift in Perspective

Returning to It’s a Wonderful Life, it wasn’t a huge hit at first. It might have languished forever in the dustbin of forgotten flicks, had it not been for a clerical error that prevented the copyright from being renewed when it expired in the 1970s. TV stations soon discovered they could play it without paying any royalties, and being the economically inclined businesses they are, the free movie became a seasonal TV filler. Eventually, it became the Christmas classic it is today.

The copyright holders’ loss is our gain. The heart of both stories, It’s a Wonderful Life and its predecessor A Christmas Carol, turns on the moment when the main character is granted a different perspective on his life. Ebenezer Scrooge is given an alternate view of the future, while George Bailey is given an alternate view of the past. No life is for naught, and in both cases, the man returns to his life with a renewed appreciation for it as a gift to be lived fully and shared with gusto.

New and improved telescope images, by contrast, won’t give us an alternate perspective on our own lives, but they do offer us a new window on the universe that hosts the lives we find ourselves living. Even the most secular of news outlets reported on early images from JWST in rhapsodic tones: “Incredible” (BBC). “Stunning” (Scientific American), “Gawking in Awe” (New York Times), “Breathtaking” (ABC News), “A Miracle” (India Times).

These terms are fitting. But again, why are the images so fascinating? Here’s why: because the Creator of the cosmos is a profligate artist, and his handiwork bespeaks his magnificence. Some three thousand years ago David looked up to the sky and wrote, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.”

The heavens do indeed speak, and while it’s not quite the way Capra depicted it, the more we are able to see of them, the more they bear witness to the glory of their Creator. Their silent speech continually offers us a renewed perspective on life and our place in the cosmos.

The John 10:10 Project, a project of Illustra Media, has produced a brief introduction to JWST that features Stephan’s Quintet and its role in the 1946 classic. Sometime between now and Christmas, take six minutes and marvel at this new window we have on the heavens.

IT'S A WONDERFUL TELESCOPE from The John 10:10 Project.

And if you haven’t seen It’s a Wonderful Life, which has now been beautifully colorized, by the way, put it at the top of your list of Christmas movies to watch ASAP. There’s no better time of the year than Christmas to renew our sense of wonder.

 is Deputy Editor of Salvo and writes on apologetics and matters of faith.

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