- Associated Press - Friday, October 28, 2016

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) - Back in the 1980s, Samford University sometimes found itself in the midst of heated controversy when its Southern Baptist supporters accused a professor of teaching evolution.

Times have changed.

Samford will host the acclaimed British one-man play, “Mr. Darwin’s Tree,” on Friday night in Harrison Theatre. The play explores the life and work of Charles Darwin and his impact on science and religion.

“The Center for Science and Religion has been laying a foundation to have speakers come in and talk about difficult issues,” said Professor Steven F. Donaldson, a co-founder of the Center. “It’s not catching people by surprise.”

Darwin was an English naturalist and geologist best known for his contributions to the science of evolution.

The dramatic production, written by Murray Watts and performed by British actor Andrew Harrison, premiered at Westminster Abbey and has been performed at the Edinburgh Festival, King’s Head Theatre in London, as well as at Oxford, Cambridge, St. Andrews, and many other universities, colleges, and theatres in the UK. The play is touring college campuses this fall.

The performance lasts 75 minutes and will be followed by a 30-minute panel discussion with the audience. A reception will follow.

“It’s an excellent play,” said Donaldson, who saw the play in England.

He said he doesn’t expect any controversy.

“We talk about evolution in different classes, from biology to scientific inquiry, and it comes up in religion classes,” he said. “Everybody’s not happy always. It’s a scientific theory and we discuss it as a theory. There’s going to be some students who are not comfortable. For many students, they’re hearing some sides of the story they’ve never heard before. They leave here with a better appreciation of both religion and science. Our goal is not to undermine their foundations but to strengthen them.”

Above all, the play is a drama about an important, pivotal historical figure, Charles Darwin.

“He’s married to a devout Christian woman; they love each other very much, and the play addresses how does it affect his marriage, how does he deal with the death of a child. It’s a very poignant play that deals with deep issues.”

Darwin struggled with personal and theological issues.

Darwin couldn’t deal with a literal interpretation of hell,” Donaldson said.

“He had a 12-year-old daughter who took ill and eventually died,” he said. “Any parent can identify with this. This probably undermined his faith more than evolution did.”

Participants in the panel discussion included biologist George Keller; theologian Jeff Leonard; and Josh Reeves, assistant professor of science and religion. Sarah McGhee, president of the Science and Religion Club, will moderate.

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