Flemming's Case Against Christ
by Ari Armstrong, April 7, 2006
Brian Flemming went to a Christian school where he accepted Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Savior no fewer than three times. He was terrified that he might have "accidentally" doubted the existence of the Holy Spirit and thus condemned himself to eternal damnation.
In his documentary, The God Who Wasn't There, Flemming returns to his old school to settle the score. He interviews Christians as well as critics of religion such as Sam Harris.
Thankfully, Flemming's documentary is better than what the web page for it suggests in its opening lines: "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." What is the "it" that Bowling does to the gun culture? In short, the movie manipulates and distorts the facts, regularly drops context, and makes gross ad hominem attacks about gun owners. (I have criticized Moore's film purportedly about Columbine as well as his film about 9/11.)
The comparison to Super Size Me (which I've also reviewed) is more apt, but still not very useful. What Morgan Spurlock's movie shows is that if you eat nothing but junk food and refuse to exercise you'll get fat and harm your health. That comes as a surprise to exactly nobody over the age of, say, five. Properly interpreted, the point of Spurlock's film is that junk food should be eaten sparingly. But Flemming's point is not that one should be a "Sunday Christian" -- he explicitly argues that the fundamentalists, not the moderates, are the true adherents of the faith.
There is a superficial similarity between the documentaries of Flemming and Spurlock: both rely on stunts and "gotcha" interviews. But, beyond that, the comparison of Flemming's movie to the other two documentaries is a brazen marketing ploy to draw the eye of the fans of those other movies. Because of the flaws particularly in Moore's work, the comparison does serious harm to the credibility of Flemming's film. It also undercuts the purpose of the film -- a point to which I'll return.
Nevertheless, despite some problems with the documentary, much of its material is compelling. He gives Christians a chance to speak their minds, even offering extended interviews in the special features. And he interviews people who, for the most part, actually know what they're talking about when it comes to the origins of Christianity. On a number of points Flemming could have sought out a stronger reply, but that doesn't detract from those points he makes forcefully.
The greatest strength of Flemming's effort is to point out the similarities between the stories of Jesus and the stories of various other gods and heroes. Is it a mere coincidence that the stories of Jesus include elements nearly identical or strongly similar to stories much older than Jesus?
Christians -- at least those with any knowledge of these parallels -- have a ready answer. The documentary quotes Justin Martyr: "For when they say that Dionysus arose again and ascended to heaven, is it not evident the devil has imitated the prophesy?" Well, no, it's not evident, at least to those who decline to accept circular arguments.
Flemming also relates some of the horrible things done in the name of Jesus, such as the Inquisition and the murder of homosexuals. However, Flemming doesn't convincingly show that such behavior is more common among Christians. After all, the worst mass-murderers in history include heads of atheistic Communist states.
I am unpersuaded by Flemming's claim that Paul thought Jesus never appeared on Earth. Flemming cites Earl Doherty, who in turn cites Hebrews 8:4. The quote as provided by Flemming is as follows: "If Jesus had been on earth, he would not even have been a priest." However, Oxford's annotated Bible describes the book of Hebrews as an "anonymous treatise," not a letter of Paul. And the passage in Hebrews is presented somewhat differently. Chapter 8:1 describes a "high priest... who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven..." 8:4 continues: "Now if he were on earth, he would not be a priest at all..." While I remain open to additional evidence, it seems to me that Flemming is really stretching here.
Flemming also quotes Luke 19:27 -- a line attributed to Jesus -- in order to establish that Christianity is inherently violent. Here's the quote as presented by Flemming: "Those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them -- bring them here and kill them in front of me." What Flemming does not point out is that here Jesus is telling a parable and attributing the quote to a nobleman. Obviously this must impact one's interpretation of the quote. So, on this point, Flemming's shoddy scholarship and Moore-like manipulation of the text undercuts his case.
There's a bigger problem with the comparison of Flemming's film to Michael Moore's work. Previously, I outlined Leonard Peikoff's theory of disintegration, integration, and misintegration (DIM). In brief, integration means building one's conceptual knowledge based on perceptual awareness of reality as integrated by reason. Disintegration is the slide into skepticism and subjectivism. And misintegration is the building of grand theories that aren't based on reality. Peikoff argues that a culture in which disintegration is prevalent is ripe for a takeover by misintegrators (especially theocrats).
The documentary, With God on Our Side, also criticizes religion, but it slides into skepticism. Flemming's film is better than that, but just barely, vaguely calling for some sort of naturalistic ethics that are never clearly defined. By appealing to the Michael-Moore left, Flemming (or at least his handlers) are partnering with those who go wild on conspiracy theories and treat truth as relative and something to be manipulated for political purposes. In other words, to the extent that Flemming cozies up to the disintegrative left, he is ultimately helping to undercut an integrative and reasonable society and pave the way to theocracy. And in aligning himself with the disintegrative left, Flemming alienates the Christians who are presumably his intended audience.
Following are a couple recent examples of how the misintegrators play off of the disintegrators.
In a March 31 letter to the Rocky Mountain News, Leslie Hanks, vice president of Colorado Right to Life, writes that one pharmaceutical sales representative "added insult to injury with her take on the miracle of life, bestowed upon women by our creator: 'Pregnancy begins when a woman is comfortable with it beginning. It depends on your own personal views and what you want to believe!' Or, as Humpty Dumpty said, 'When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean, nothing more, nothing less'."
Here Hanks is explicitly reacting against a disintegrative approach of skepticism and moral subjectivism -- by turning to theism.
In an April 6 e-mail, John Andrews describes a recent debate between Ward Churchill and David Horowitz:"To the main question of the debate, 'Can and should politics be taken out of the classroom?' Churchill said flatly no. 'There is no truth,' he asserted, merely a dominant orthodoxy enforced by power, which results in there being no real democracy in America today. Hence teachers at all levels are not merely allowed but obligated to aggressively question the status quo, Churchill argued.
"By this standard, what Jay Bennish said regarding Bush and Hitler was appropriate for the classroom, Churchill insisted near the end of the hour-long exchange. His dogmatic Marxist worldview was defiantly (if implicitly) evident throughout..."
Andrews has an answer to Churchill's blatantly disintegrative approach: religion. Andrews continues: "There's nothing else quite like Backbone Radio, the most principled, most patriotic, most faith-based, most Colorado-proud spot on the dial."
It is not enough to criticize religion. Nor does it suffice to criticize the skeptics and subjectivists. What is needed is a proper integrative approach: an advocacy of standards, truth, and moral absolutes based on reality. Otherwise, the disintegrators and misintegrators will continue to react against each other, each side building support by pointing out the flaws of the other.
Flemming has shown courage by challenging the ideas of his youth. But the rejection of particular bad ideas hardly guarantees the acceptance of good ones.