Monday, February 12, 2007

Reactions to "The God Who Wasn't There"

Our viewing of the guerilla documentary The God Who Wasn't There was a resounding success, with a large and diverse turnout that included law students, faculty, and even a local pastor. After the film, I briefly opened the floor for discussion. Here are some reactions from the audience:
  • The film does an excellent job of drawing attention to the historical gap between the supposed death of Jesus circa 32 CE and the writing of the Gospels circa 70 CE, and highlights some of the inconsistencies between New Testament accounts of Jesus' life. In so doing, it raises pertinent questions that merit real intellectual debate. However, some felt that the filmmaker should have given theologians an opportunity to provide their own explanations instead of forcing the audience to accept those of the narrator.
  • The film should have devoted much more time to exploring the concept of Jesus as an allegorical figure derived from the popular pagan savior mythology of the period. This is a particularly compelling argument against the historical case for Christ, and one that is rarely offered by atheists.
  • The film's shift towards filmmaker Brian Flemming's personal experiences with fundamental Christianity detracts from its overall effectiveness and validates criticism of the film as an obvious propaganda piece made by a person with an ax to grind.
  • Similarly damaging are many of the cheap shots Flemming takes, such as quoting particularly insane biblical passages (of which there is no shortage in the Old Testament) out of context or juxtaposing ebullient Christians with the likes of Charles Manson.
  • One person felt that Flemming should have counterbalanced his attacks with "all the good things one gets from a Christian upbringing" (namely, morality); I didn't want to debate this point because it wasn't directly related to the film, but countless studies have demonstrated that morality and religion are not mutually inclusive (in fact, in the US, they seem to have an inversely correlative relationship; see Societies worse off "when they have God on their side"). There are clear evolutionary advantages to being a "moral" person. See, for example, eminent biologist Richard Dawkins' documentary Nice Guys Finish First.
  • The film's interviews with random Christians, all of whom were caught off guard when asked specific questions about first century Christianity and ancient pagan savior figures, brought mixed reactions. Some felt that ambushing believers on the street was unfair and unbalanced, and that theologians should have been interviewed; others (myself included) felt that, although theologians would have obviously been much more articulate in their views, it was appropriate to pick everyday Christians because they are representative of the vast majority of believers.
  • Some objected to the montage of violent scenes from the "Passion of the Christ" as gratuitous and/or another cheap shot. I felt that it was effective in showing the extent to which a n obsession with suffering and death pervades Christianity, albeit subconsciously.

6 Comments:

Anonymous Paul Carter said...

I'm the local pastor mentioned as being in attendance. I had heard of the movie and was glad to have the opportunity to see it.

I hoped for a stronger more honest and perhaps more rational case presented by Mr. Flemming. But apparently he preferred to focus on half-information that we get so angry over when we think we are hearing it from our politicians.

The movie could be construed as a conversation starter, I suppose, because a lot of time could be spent untangling the statements to figure out what may be true behind what he presented. But my preference would have been a presentation of more than his anger and frustration at his fundamentalist upbringing.

I, as an evangelical Christian, am as horrified as he was at most of what passed for Biblical teaching and behavior in his presentation. It is not surprising to me that he would judge the Faith by the people who were his leaders and what they may have taught him. But there is better evangelical scholarship available to him than what he believes he was taught when he was a boy.

Perhaps a future presentation could focus more on what the Rationalist Society is for rather than presenting the 98% straw man of Mr. Flemming that it, and many others of us, is against. I would find that discussion far more profitable.

Still, as one participant said, it is discourse. That is better than no conversation together at all.

February 13, 2007 at 3:57 PM  
Blogger Skiritai said...

Mr. Carter,

Thank you for your comments.

Your interest in learning "what the Rationalist Society is for" suggests that we are (or, in the eyes of non-members, ought to be) a group which adheres to a specific doctrine, with the president dispensing teachings in the fashion of a quasi-pastor. As I made a point of saying after the film, that is absolutely not the case.

We may agree upon a common mission statement, but we each have our own reasons for identifying with a secular worldview, regardless of whether we are atheists, agnostics or simply advocates of church-state separation. Some of us may base our disbelief on personal experiences that resonate with those of Brian Flemming; others may have been born into non-Christian cultures or irreligious homes and see the entire matter as a cultural curiosity; others still may interpret Christian folklore as nothing more than allegory but cling to those teachings out of respect for tradition.

I cannot present a film on "what the Rationalist Society is for" because we are not "for" any one thing, other than a rational approach to those profound questions that were long the exclusive province of religion. We chose to present this film precisely because it represents an approach to non-belief with which we do not agree, that is, a largely irrational and reactionary one that offers much in the way of sensationalism but little in the way of fact. It was an intellectual exercise; as advocates of critical thought, we left to the viewer the task of deciding which of the filmmaker's points warrant further exploration.

That having been said, I personally found the film's discussion of the four decades between Christ's supposed death and the writing of the first Gospels, and the similarities between Jesus and characters from pre-Christian pagan mythology to be compelling. Although I didn't entirely agree with the manner in which those points were raised, they are still valid points, in my opinion.

As an undergraduate, I studied early medieval Irish and Welsh literature and regularly encountered similar patterns whereby an unremarkable and possibly fictional figure (such as, for instance, the 8th c. Welsh character "Myrddin") from an obscure local legend (say, the tale of a battlefield deserter who dwelt in a cave and slowly went insane, spouting cryptic Galfridian prophecies in what is perhaps one of the first clear depictions of post-traumatic stress disorder) was transformed after many years by an influential writer (say, Geoffrey of Monmouth in the twelfth century) into a powerful religious figure (say, Merlin) whose existence was undisputed and whose teachings were cited as divine authority, even by heads of state (say, Queen Elizabeth I of England in the late 1500s).

No rational person today considers Merlin to have been real, much less a prophet of God, but as late as the Renaissance, many rational people did. That is just one example out of many, and I omit entirely the myriad questions raised by ambiguities in the dead languages in which those tales were often written. Why should a rational person approach the New Testament, a 2,000 year old collection of disjointed writings by multiple authors, penned in languages two millenia removed, as anything more than folklore?

February 17, 2007 at 6:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Something you should know, which Brian Flemming conveniently left out of the film, was how widely accepted the Jesus-Myth theory is in the scholarly community. The theory that Jesus never existed, i.e. the Jesus Myth theory (JMT), is a fringe theory. There are no respected scholars in the fields of biblical scholarship, NT studies, archaeology, or ancient history who support that theory. There are amatures from outside those fields who write books espousing the theory, but no one with any expertise in those fields supports it.

At the Jesus Seminar, considered to be a collection of about 100 of the most radical NT scholars out there, one (Robert Price) supported the JMT. 1 out of 100 of the most radical views.

Don't believe me? Go to the religious studies department or whatever department deals with biblical studies and ask them about Earl Doherty and G.A. Wells and their theories. Chances are they will tell you something similar to what I have said here, or that they've never heard of them.

April 20, 2007 at 9:51 AM  
Blogger Skiritai said...

Do your figures apply strictly to the "Jesus was purely mythological" argument advanced by Robert Price, or to the broader "Jesus may have been a real person but the details of his life have long since been swallowed by mythological embellishments" theory at which I hinted?

April 30, 2007 at 10:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The figures to which I was referring were to the "Jesus was pure myth" theory, which is the Lyndon LaRouche of NT theories. I don't know what the numbers to the latter theory are, but probably higher. But it is universally accepted that the earliest Christians believed in a historical Jesus. I am not an expert but I can tell you that without hesitation.

May 20, 2007 at 2:09 PM  
Anonymous Bebhin said...

Great work.

November 11, 2008 at 5:53 PM  

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