The God That Wasn’t at Church
This evening, “The God Who Wasn’t There” was shown at the First Baptist Church of Colleyville, near Dallas. Attendance was only about 20-30, given the fact that it’s Father’s Day today, and that the Mavericks were playing the Heat in game 5 of the NBA Finals. Still, I thought it was a decent turnout, considering the featured material- although most of the people that I recognized were from the Faith and Reason class which I’ve mentioned here before.
The event was conceived of and led by Kevin Harris, a Christian apologist and host of the morning show for the local Christian radio station 100.7 “The Word.” He’s a great guy, and has welcomed me into the class very warmly, and genuinely wants to expose his fellow Christians to the various evidences and arguments for and against Christianity. He told the audience that it’s part of the Christian faith to “test everything” to determine its truth, in the manner of the oft-mentioned Bereans.
Kevin also made it clear that he wanted to avoid poisoning the well before introducing Brian Flemming’s movie, and that he wanted those gathered to be able to draw their own conclusions from the movie. He mentioned that only two sections of the movie would be shown, partially to allow for a sufficient Christian response, and also because he thought that some sections of the movie would be seen as “mocking” or “sarcastic” of Jesus, and that such content wasn’t appropriate in the Lord’s house. I would have loved it if the entire movie could have been screened, but I understand Kevin’s concerns- I think if he had his way, he’d rather have the whole movie shown also, but there are a number of people at the church who are very sensitive about the extent to which anti-Christian ideas are promoted within the church, and I can empathize with them. If you recall, Kevin pushed hard for the panel of atheists to come to the Faith and Reason class several weeks ago, and received some complaints about the seeming one-sidedness of their visit, and so I think he’s just playing it as conservatively as possible while still having a particularly incendiary (at least, to the Christian perspective) movie shown in church on a Sunday.
Before showing the movie Kevin also took a few minutes to draw attention to Brian Flemming’s blog, on which Brian had commented about the showing of the movie at FBCC. Kevin read the entire blog entry, including the following quote:
“But the flock must be protected. After all, Christians are not mature, thinking people who can judge source material for themselves. That material must be censored and characterized before presentation to such vulnerable minds. Or so it appears.”Now, Kevin dismissed this as silly, but it occurred to me that this was exactly what was happening. Only two sections of the movie were being shown, and those were being bookended with a substantial apologetic response to counteract the questions that were raised by the movie. I don’t begrudge Kevin for this approach- given his religious perspective, that’s the best way to do it. But I think that Brian was spot-on in his prediction- the material was carefully handled, like so much plutonium, and lead-shielded with a thick apologetic.
Aside from Kevin, there were two other invited guests to form a small panel. Patrick Zukeran is an apologist on staff with Probe Ministries here in Dallas, and is the host of an apologetic radio show, “Evidence and Answers,” broadcast on The Word. Craig Harris (Kevin’s brother), is a nationally syndicated journalist who writes the column, “Apparently So,” on the topic of Christian parenting.
The first clip shown began with the DVD chapter entitled, “Fact vs Fiction,” and was composed primarily of the arguments from Richard Carrier, Robert Price, and Alan Dundes. This section laid out pretty well the argument against the historicity of Jesus, focusing on the historical inconsistencies of the Gospel accounts and the archetypical similarities between Jesus and the various pagan deities. The clip ended before the movie started on the section about Christianity’s preoccupation with violence, and Kevin opened up the panel for comments.
Craig began with his appraisal as a journalist. Essentially, he thought it was “not very good.” From a journalistic standpoint, he thought the production values were poor, and the interviewees couldn’t be heard very well. I thought this was an odd “journalistic” appraisal, since it really didn’t address anything substantial about the way the interviews appeared to have been conducted, or how they were edited. Craig’s criticism of the production values seemed superficial at best, and in my opinion, irrelevant. The substance of the interviews was what was of interest to the movie, and I was disappointed that he didn’t address that directly.
Patrick then spoke up about Brian’s use of the Justin Martyr quote in which he compares the attributes of Jesus to those of the pagan deities. He said that the quote was taken out of context, and that Justin was simply trying to promote Christianity as a religion to the Roman authorities in a manner with which they were familiar. However, I don’t think that the context takes anything away from the point that Brian was trying to make- the fact is that Justin made a clear comparison between Jesus and the pagan deities. Whatever the reason is that he did so is beside the point- he still admitted that there was no substantial difference. Pat also claimed that Brian had “misinterpreted” Biblical scriptures in his formulation of his argument, although no specific examples were given, nor were the correct interpretations of those scriptures. Pat suggested that Brian had a bad experience with Christianity, and this clouded his ability to present the facts accurately. This was a disappointing appraisal, since Kevin had begun the screening by explicitly saying that he wanted to avoid poisoning the well, and yet here Pat was mounting a blatant ad hominem criticism of Brian, in an effort to discredit his thesis.
There was also a short audio clip played of Brian being interviewed on a radio show (it was short, but I’m pretty sure it was his interview by the Rational Response Squad) in which he states that he intended the documentary as a tool to “destroy faith.” This was also an unfortunate ad hominem- the motives behind the production of the documentary don’t have any logical bearing on the truth of his thesis.
Following this, Kevin led the panel through a Christian response to the components of Brian’s argument. Most of these were common responses to the mythicist position: If any borrowing occurred, it was from Christianity to paganism. The Gospels were all written before 70 CE, and thus were too close to the eyewitnesses to not be accurate historical accounts. There are incidental (naked man fleeing the garden) and embarrassing (woman visiting the tomb) details which indicate that the Gospels were historical. Legends can’t develop in a few decades. There are an overwhelming number of manuscript copies of the Gospels. Jewish oral traditions were too reliable to put the Gospel accounts in question. Paul mentions 500 witnesses who saw the risen Christ. Luke was an impeccable historian. Thousands of archaeological discoveries support the historicity of the Gospels. Many Biblical scholars, even liberal scholars, accept the historicity of Jesus. The Slaughter of the Innocents was too small to be noticed by extrabiblical history. The Sanhedrin could convene a trial on Passover on special circumstances. Pilate released Barabbas as a political maneuver. Early Christians which have differing accounts of Jesus’ ministry are not reliable sources. The whole thing was pretty long, actually, and a little boring for me- I’d heard it all before, and also heard rebuttals to each one.
One thing I thought was interesting was that the panel raised C.S. Lewis’ answer to the mythicist hypothesis, namely, “We should expect some anticipatory themes and motifs in the religions of man.” This is obviously just a retread of Justin Martyr’s demonic anticipation argument, but without the Devil. In the movie, Brian states that this argument is really the only good argument that Christians have to give, and I thought it was interesting that Lewis’ variation of it was brought out (though I’m not sure anyone else appreciated the irony).
Following this panel discussion, the second clip was shown. This final clip begins with the DVD chapter entitled, “Crazy,” and continued until the end of the movie. Basically, this is the part of the movie where Brian turns the documentary on himself, and examines his own past as a Christian. At the conclusion of this section, he interviews the superintendent of his former school, Ronald Sipus. In the clip, Brian continues to ask Sipus questions about teaching faith as fact to children, and Sipus eventually accuses Brian of being dishonest and ends the interview. Following the clip, Kevin played a short audio clip of a telephone interview he conducted with Sipus. In the audio clip, Sipus restates that Brian lied to him, that he had initially agreed to an interview based on the idea that the documentary would be looking at the “impact of Christian education on young people.” Although this is arguably what that section of the documentary did focus on, Sipus had clearly assumed that the documentary would have a positive tack on Christianity. He also claimed that Brian had sent him questions that were radically different from those which he was really asked, and it was upon realizing this, he concluded that he couldn’t trust Brian and ended the interview. He said that he had talked to some faculty that knew Brian personally (Sipus himself joined the school after Brian left), and that he wasn’t known for a bad reputation. However, he concluded that Brian was just angry at his parents, the church, and the school. He seemed pretty disgusted with Brian, calling him nothing more than an “opportunist,” similar to Michael Moore, and that he didn’t think that “The God Who Wasn’t There” even qualified as a documentary. He did, however, volunteer that they were using the movie as part of the Junior and Senior Bible classes, and was happy that they were able to use it “for good.” He also mentioned that he regretted not “marching him out physically” from the campus, since Brian took an opportunity to take footage of his old chapel, as a poignant coda for his film.
The panel gave its final thoughts- Craig was of the opinion that Brian was never a true Christian in the first place, or that he had never properly matured as a Christian, otherwise he never would have fallen away like he did. Pat said that Brian had misinterpreted the “blaspheme the holy spirit” passage, and that a true Christian wouldn’t have anything to fear.
The floor was then open for questions, and I looked around quickly to see if anyone else wanted to ask anything. Seeing none, I stood up and addressed Pat. “You mentioned in passing the historian Josephus,” I said, “but you didn’t bring up the Testimonium Flavianum. I assume you’re familiar with it?” Pat just looked at me blankly (I think he may not have realized I was talking to him). I continued, “The Testimonium? You know, the purported mention of Jesus by Flavius Josephus, the self-appointed official Jewish historian?” He nodded in assent. “Well, (and I was holding a Bible open at this point) there were a number of events during Jesus’ ministry as recorded in the Gospels that would have been of national importance, that would have been truly remarkable events that no good historian could have passed up. And I see here something interesting in Matthew 27- ‘The tombs were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the tombs after His resurrection they entered the holy city and appeared to many.’ This would seem to me to be a remarkable event, a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. Why do you think that Josephus never mentioned this unique event?”
Admittedly, this was probably not the kind of question that Pat was anticipating, but he basically just stammered for a few minutes before admitting that he didn’t know why it wasn’t mentioned. At this point Kevin cut in to say that we don’t know how many people were actually raised, or how many people actually saw them, so it may not have been as remarkable as I thought it was. But he admitted that it was strange that Josephus didn’t mention it, but hopefully a manuscript could be found that mentioned the “zombies” in an historical context.
The event ended with a call for prayer on behalf of Brian Flemming, as well as any other unbelievers (myself, I assume) who had seen the movie. All in all, I was impressed with the determination shown by Kevin in having (at least, parts of) the movie shown (in a church, no less!), but I was disappointed in the (by my opinion) overwhelming apologetic attenuation that the movie was surrounded by. At the very least, it exposed some Christians to ideas which they wouldn’t have come in contact with otherwise, and I can only hope that’s a good thing.