DVD Review: The God Who Wasn't There

The argument that wasn’t there

As an open-minded Christian, I enjoy reading the work of atheists. Richard Dawkins does a nice job of elucidating the atheist viewpoint. Even the recently-departed Christopher Hitchens, he of the vicious attacks on moral superheroes, makes a great case for the danger of religious thought.

But poor director Brian Fleming. His “The God Who Wasn’t There” is all bluff and puffery, and not well-though-out at all.

This basic contention is that between 33AD, when Jesus died, and the writing of the first gospel around 70AD, very little happened. Jesus, in his lifetime was known, then was forgotten for thirty-five years, and then “remembered” again. This would indeed be compelling evidence if it were true. Fleming correctly states that Paul, who wrote in the 40s and 50s, did not write about the sayings of Jesus, his healings, the virgin birth or the other miracles. Fleming claim therefore that Paul did not know of these events at all. Which is a stretch – no consideration is given to the possibility that Paul knew of them but chose not to write about them.

But this argument is silly on a couple of fronts. Fleming omits the book of Acts, admittedly written around 85AD, that tells the story of the early church. In many cases, Acts at least parallels what Paul writes about, providing a source of some internal consistency. Fleming also ignores that Paul was not a historian, but an  apostle and preacher. All that mattered to Paul was that Christ, born of a woman, had been crucified, raised from death, and was soon  to return in glory. Who cared where he was born and what color his hair was?

Fleming resurrects the old argument that many gods in the ancient world were born of virgins, crucified, rose from the dead and are seated among the gods. This old dog sure has made the rounds. And it seems persuasive to those who don’t study the ancient world. These claims are either hilariously wrong, or describe religions that came into being *after* Christianity and cribbed from its influence and powerful stories.

On the positive side, I appreciated the animated comparison of the Resurrection stories that Fleming included. If I taught religion, I would incorporate it into the curriculum. While fundamentalists might think it blasphemous to show discrepancies among the gospel accounts of Christ’s rising, it’s not so at all. Mainline scholars have known of the differences for years. Whether proclaiming the appearance at the tomb of a young man (Mark), two men (Luke), or one angel (Matthew), the gospel differences provide important insights into the minds of the evangelists and the development of the early church. The fact that the early church retained such radically different accounts – when harmonizing them would have made it look better – is a testament to its high regard for truth, no matter how uncomfortable. But Fleming’s exegisis, while fun to watch, tells us nothing about the Resurrection and less about the gospel writers. He seems to believe that either the gospels (and the Bible) are literally true and thoroughly consistent, as he was taught, or that they are completely untrue. A subtle mind is needed to understand the Good Book, something Fleming sadly does not possess.

I admired that Fleming seems hell-bent on facing down the scars left by his fundamentalist education. It was courageous to enter the chapel where three times (after moments of doubt) he declared Jesus as his personal Savior. It was brave (if a little theatrical) to now deny the existence of the Holy Spirit there. But it absolutely excruciating to watch him assault his old school principal with his new and heretical beliefs. I can understand the catharsis that Fleming was after, but his confrontation (with a restrained, if pained principal) was an adolescent fantasy of patricide that did not advance Fleming’s thesis or argue well for his maturity.

I was disappointed by interviews taken out of context. Barbra Mikkelson, of the wonderful, legend-busting Snopes.com, weighed in to say that certain fictional stories, when heard by new listeners, are told as true. By extension, Fleming suggests, fictional stories about a crucified messiah, when heard years later, were taken as (pardon me) gospel. Certainly, it is not impossible that this kind of human error skewed the transmission of stories about Jesus. But Fleming’s claim that the Jesus stories are fiction relies heavily on the belief that for 35+ years after his death, everyone forgot about Jesus, and that around 70AD, a new batch of listeners heard the stories as true. This completely ignores the existence of Jesus’s apostles (whom even Paul admits to meeting) and a church community that personally knew Jesus and transmitted his story, however imperfectly.

“The God Who Was Not There” is a “cri de coeur” from a young man wounded by a twisted experience of faith. But he is in error to declare that the truth must be the polar opposite of whatever he was taught, and that everything he learned as a student, including the very existence of Jesus, was utterly false. Let’s hope that as he matures, Fleming does not make the mistake of others who held passionate, if erroneous, beliefs while young, and that he learns more nuanced way of understanding Jesus and the gospels.