Saturday, May 14, 2005

Mockumentarians and Jesus

On Philip Plait's blog at his website, Bad Astronomy, I saw that he was scheduled to appear soon on a Showtime piece debunking conspiracy theories. The piece is by two magicians known as Penn & Teller -- probably famous to you, but unknown to me before this week. They turn out to be doing a whole series of shows about religion, so I went to their website and checked out video previews of a few shows (some of which have aired already). On their site they declare themselves atheists who have longed for years to put on a show tearing down sacred cows, and by this they do mean religious cows. But not all of their shows are about religion, and their show on conspiracy theories looks great: from the previews I saw that they are mocking some looney theories about 9-11, as well as the Moon Hoax.

Their style is to present a one-sided case and to have sarcastic fun at the expense of the target. It's a style very similar to what Michael Moore used in "Fahrenheit 911": mock a target, and call your work a documentary. Moore is credited with inventing the mockumentary, and I think it's a fine term to describe Penn & Teller's Showtime programs.

But there are some differences in technique. So far as I know, Penn & Teller have no treatment of serious suffering (and I do concede that Moore's topic could not help but cover painful things). I saw their pieces on Alcoholics Anonymous, yoga, and the Bible. In the preview of the AA piece they actually refer (ever so briefly) to serious data, by presenting statistics about AA's success rate and comparing them with statistics for other approaches. And athough I have attended 12-step programs before and deeply love them for offering me help I did not find elsewhere, I can say that researching the topic on the web I do find a lot of evidence that AA's success rate is minimal, as well as a lot of debate over how AA might regain much higher success rates from its early years.

The yoga piece is different. They visit what looks like a yoga conference and quote yoga practitioners in such a way as to get the maximum laughter at their expense. You hear so-and-so saying that she does yoga as a way to expand the mind or to find enlightenment, then you hear Penn's loudmouth showman's voice heaping scorn with sarcastic questions or some quick judgment. He unwittingly chose a mantra, actually: every time a yogi would say something, you'd cut to a shot of the class doing asanas (poses), and Penn practically yelling into the mike, "Stretching!"

The problem with this sort of thing -- oh, if there were only one! -- is that a true documentary does not treat its interviewed subjects this way. Whether you're interviewing a neo-Nazi or Mother Theresa, if you want to understand the mind that you're studying you have to allow the subject to give their own context. Any grand claim can be made to look foolish in a cheap way if you don't allow it to be built up stage by stage. A New York Times movie reviewer once urged people to see the movie "Braveheart" and not to be discouraged by the TV ads showing Mel Gibson's roar of "Freedom!", which he said looked rather silly on a small TV screen. I went to see "Braveheart" in its proper visual context (the big screen) and concluded that the larger problem with the TV ads was that they missed, obviously, the context of the backstory. That one-word roar means nothing floating in the air, but means everything when you experience its backstory. The same principle applies when yogis are talking about freedom of the mind. It's the easiest thing in the world, and actually not courageous at all (despite the billing of Penn & Teller as having the courage to debunk subjects that no one else will), but simply lazy and self-indulgent, to take a claim and place it in your own mocking context or environment (as Michael Moore did so infuriatingly well with his own important subject). Think how easy it would be to mock Braveheart's Scots: just show the "Freedom!" declaration and intercut it with documentation of a rape that a Scot lord committed, or evidence of slave-like feudalism in their country; show nothing else; play it for laughs, if you're enough of a magician or showman to do that; and you have a mockumentary.

Truth and science, well, that's something else. To do science you need more than to craft a theory; any fool can do that. Anyone can try to overthrow something. Real science happens when you test your theory, and essentially try to overthrow it. Good documentaries get deep into their subjects by showing conflicting theories. The best Bible study I have attended was led by a priest -- not a liberal one, either -- who built our study of the Bible around highlighting contradictions within the Bible (without trying to harmonize them), and asking questions like, "Who was Cain's wife?" That's the way to get deeply into any subject. People who think contradictory evidence discredits an entire subject have the right to get their laughs out of it, but when they have large audiences, and they present their shows as hard-hitting work that will increase your knowledge of important subjects, a person like me starts to worry. When their only mastery is not the subject, but showmanship, well then you have a real problem.

I find it interesting that Penn & Teller are magicians, like the ex-magician, Joe Nickell, who now writes for Skeptical Inquirer and has seemed to encourage the theory that Jesus did not exist (as I wrote in my first post). Magicians know exactly how to fool the human mind, and as such they can be invaluable educators; Philip Plait writes on his blog (May 3, 2005) about two Australian magicians, Alynda Brown and Richard Saunders, who travel around teaching youngsters how their minds can be fooled and how to think for themselves. Penn & Teller, I hear, performed their magic routines and then always showed the audience how they did it, as if to say that there is no magic. I would love to have seen such a show; I would have been deeply fascinated, and appreciative. The problem with showmen, however, is that they are masters of persuasion. They can disavow or uncover the persuasive techniques that they're formally known for, such as the techniques of magic; but Penn & Teller have retained a showman's persuasion by using disarming humor and distortions of context. They may not think that they're distorting the context of these subjects that much -- but then again, they don't know the subjects. And I passionately believe that the only great teacher is someone who knows what they don't know.

Pennn & Teller's piece on the Bible called on two experts: Paul Maier, a historian of antiquity with a sincere and deep religious bent; and none other than one of my favorite authors, Michael Shermer, who keeps showing up on this blog. The Bible piece was billed by Penn & Teller as questioning whether the Red Sea was parted and whether Jesus even existed. So someday I do have to rent it, if only to hear more from Shermer. He is quoted respectfully; Maier starts speaking of the general reasons for his belief in God, and what we see is not him completing his thoughts, but a scene from what appears to me like the Golden Calf sequence of decadent reverie in one of Cecil B. DeMille's versions of The Ten Commandments (it was the earlier silent version, I think, which looks amazingly ridiculous).

I tried unsuccessfuly to find on the web what else Shermer may have said on the show, outside of the short clip I saw. I found on Amazon that one of his books on religion is criticized for speaking of Abraham and Jesus as if they were historical figures; and I have found on the web a letter critical of Shermer's Skeptic Magazine for assuming, in a review of a book about Jesus, that Jesus existed. Shermer seems more an agnostic about Jesus than an atheist/denier, and I've also learned that Shermer is an agnostic about God. He embraced Jesus at 17 in an evangelical setting and started to study theology (as well as some courses on the historical Jesus), but he gave up that path to embrace both the general study of science and the particular study of psychology: he's become an expert on documenting the varieties of religious experiences (ala William James) and showing how they are produced by the human psyche. When he debates people on the subject of God's existence his main argument is to show the evidence that God is a human concept and a psychological experience. Indeed in the little I saw of his Penn & Teller interview he was essentially applying his argument about God to the Bible, by stating that the Bible shows itself entirely to be a human product.

I would say rather that our concepts and experiences of God, as well as our text of the Bible (which relates many of the former), could not help but be human; but none of this disproves that there is a God to be discovered outside our material world, anymore than all-too-human and limited theories, from the past or present, about the structure of the universe show that there is nothing to be discovered about the material world (and Shermer himself acknowledges that no proof against God's existence is possible). There is a certain brush with fallacy here, in my opinion, and I see it also in the work of Tim Callahan, the Bible commentator at Skeptic Magazine. Callahan's main approach to Jesus is to show how much of his story looks like Old Testament or Gentile stories and myths. For more on this approach, and how skeptics lose their skepticism when it comes to religion, see this post.

Penn & Teller's show is billed as courageous, but somehow I doubt that they will proceed onward to Mohammed denial. In the meantime they claim to show that the Bible is "entirely fiction". Not that they claim to be Biblical scholars, but it's ridiculous how easy a disproof of such a statement is. I mean that anyone who had read the Bible would know that many of the things in it were moral prescriptions; that much of it is poetry; that most scholars treat only specific portions of the Bible as written consciously in the historical genre. A skeptic who had read the Bible but wished to discount it entirely would have said something other than that it is all fiction. How I wish for the Bible to get equal treatment with the works of Homer, for instance; anyone who wishes to make large claims about the composition of The Iliad and The Odyssey is expected to be able read Homer in the original Greek. Such basic standards of scholarship are missing when it comes to the Bible; and the basic standards are not heightened when it comes to the Bible; they're loosened.

I often have read passages in the Psalms which cry out to God when enemies mock and spit. I have read these passages and felt completely at a loss to relate; I've even wondered if they carry any relevance to our society. Well, for those less priveleged than I, they always carried relevance. Now I do not doubt their relevance myself. That is not because I think that religious people are being outnumbered and defeated; Christians may feel this, but secularists speak themselves with increasing frequency about feeling besieged. I do not see two sides in which one is winning; I see rather that the divide between secularism and religion is growing bitter, and that everyone is attacking each other more viciously. We are in fact attacked more these days; but not because we are outnumbered. It's because we're losing common ground, and barely know each other. For that reason, skeptics who wish to say that the Bible is entirely fiction have to rely on people who do not specialize in the Bible; we just do not study in the same places anymore. And to me, that is the greater danger: that people are growing into adulthood now who do not know evolution, or who have not read the Bible (or even studied religion). The result: conspiracy thinking and fundamentalism, sitting side by side.

But all that we may leave for future posts.

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