Sunday, June 19, 2005

The God Who Wasn't There

The theory that Jesus did not exist, the subject of my first post, has made it into film. A 38-year-old director named Brian Flemming has released a new film called "The God Who Wasn't There." It premiered here in New York last night. I intend to see the movie, but not to speculate before then on the details within it, though I can respond already to those claims in the movie which have appeared in print. Here are excerpts from the movie's website:

Bowling for Columbine did it to the gun culture.

Super Size Me did it to fast food.

Now The God Who Wasn't There does it to religion.

Holding modern Christianity up to a merciless spotlight, this bold and hilarious new film asks the questions few dare to ask. And when it finds out how crazy the answers are, it dares to call them crazy.

Your guide through the bizarre world of Christendom is former fundamentalist Brian Flemming, who unflinchingly explores the absurdity of belief and believers. Along the way, you will discover:

Jesus Christ is likely a fictional character, a legend never based on a real human.

Christian doctrine contradicts itself at every turn, and encourages immorality when it serves the religion.

The beliefs of moderate Christians make even less sense than those of extremists.

And God simply isn't there.

Along the way, Flemming confronts those who once persuaded him to fear the wrath of God and conduct a "personal relationship" with that god's son.

The God Who Wasn't There may delight you or anger you. Perhaps it will do both. But you'll never look at Christianity the same again.

Firstly, the theory that Jesus Christ did not exist is a conspiracy theory. I don't know what's in Flemming's movie, but the comparison with Super Size Me and Bowling For Columbine suggests that he wants to debunk falsehood. Yet while Super Size Me is a wonderful movie that does not depend on conspiracy theories, but is based on running an experiment, something in the best scientific tradition, Michael Moore loves conspiracy theories. The God Who Wasn't There is being called a Michael Moore-like mockumentary, and that should not be taken as a compliment.

Whatever Flemming's version is, the theory of Jesus' nonexistence claims that people made up a myth, passed it off as fact, silenced those who knew the reality, used the new story to control people, and got away with murder spectacularly well until a few heroes exposed the truth. Like any conspiracy theory, it denies all the evidence that is there, and relies on evidence that is not there because it was supposedly "suppressed." The evidence from the Bible and from extrabiblical writings for Jesus' existence is dismissed by the theory in one way or another -- sent down the "memory hole". Meanwhile, there is no positive evidence for the theory of nonexistence, no ancient writings showing that people doubted the existence of Jesus, so the theory tends to say that such doubts were inhibited, suppressed, or deleted from the historical record. That's a conspiracy theory: a theory that certain nefarious individuals in power conspired to tell a lie that has become well-accepted because they created all the evidence backing it up and destroyed or manipulated all the evidence contrary to their lie.

Secondly, I can shed a little light on why Flemming claims that the beliefs of moderate Christians make even less sense than those of fundamentalist Christians. In an interview with Christianity Today, Flemming says that, "Obviously there exists this thing called moderate Christianity, but it's really just a watered-down version of the same thing. If you press a moderate Christian and ask, if they have faith that the Bible is at least the inspired Word of God, how can they not believe in salvation? And if you believe in salvation, then obviously you're being saved from something and the other thing is bad. So it's all right there."

Flemming could not be more wrong. "Moderate" Christianity makes more sense of the Bible because it reads the Bible with suppleness, acknowledging the different genres within the Biblical text -- myth, poetry, law, liturgy and history. "Moderates" also are not troubled when a huge and immensely complex work like the Bible says two things which appear to contradict, such as a call for justice and another call for mercy; we give thanks to God that more than one point of view is in the Bible. Indeed we thank God that there exist more than one official or definitive version, so speak, of particular stories within the Bible, such as the ministry of Jesus, the Creation, the Flood, etc. More is better than less; contradictions produce tension and richness, not despair about truth. In the end, "moderate" Christians are not forced to reconcile textual contradictions which Biblical literalists do have to contend with.

Some of us also think that Christians who are extremists about their politics are less loving than those who believe that we must follow Christ's example of forgiveness and tolerance. Some fundamentalist forms of Christianity may be said to be a watered-down version of traditional Christianity's emphasis on mercy, or a watered-down version of liberal Christianity's call for a Lord's table to whom everyone is invited.

It seems to me that certain atheists need to deny the life of Christ, so that they can, as they see it, safely regard the Bible as pure fiction. If Jesus did not even live, nothing in the Bible needs to be thought of as historical. Why some atheists feel this need, I do not know. Some atheists, like Carl Sagan, have truly admirable and inspiring worldviews. Other atheists ask only for tolerance for themselves. They do not deny history.

That's enough for now, since I have not seen Flemming's movie yet. But here are some links to my first post, about the movement to deny that Jesus existed; my post on how this theory compares, as science, to the theory that we never went to the Moon; my post on denying the existence of Muhammed; and my post about mockumentarians.

See the Internet Movie Database for more discussion of this movie; I have some comments in a thread called "Looking Forward". I've also started a discussion thread at the page for "The Beast", Flemming's next project, scheduled for release on June 6, 2006 (that's right, 06/06/06), in which a fictional teenage girl unexpectedly finds actual proof that Jesus of Nazareth did not exist. My post is called "Isn't This A Conspiracy Theory?"

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