I finally got around to watching the documentary The God Who Wasn’t There I wrote about it a while back, after learning of it’s existence, and added it to my Netflix queue — moving it to the top once it became available. It arrived yesterday, and I watched it last night once Parker went to bed. I started writing a review before the movie was even over.
My first response to the movie is that at about an hour in length, it doesn’t seem long enough, and the filmmaker’s premise — essentially that Jesus was a myth, and may never have actually existed — could support a much longer movie. In fact, it would help the movie a lot in that some of that time could be used to better support the ideas that Brian Fleming presents in the film. Of course, that’s a challenged facing any documentary that attempts to take on a huge topic — like Bowling for Columbine, or Super Size Me, which Fleming’s movie is compared to on it’s website — and Fleming has in his sites probably the biggest story in this culture that anyone could try to take on.
Fortunately Fleming mostly succeeds at least covering enough material to encourage people to question what they have been told and ask what they haven’t been told regarding the story of Jesus. But it’s likely that this movie is mostly “preaching to the choir,” because many true believers won’t see it and those that do will either dismiss it or having a good time debunking it. It’s worthwhile viewing for non-christians/non-believers if only because it reveals information that probably many non-christians don’t know.
For example, a number of christians interviewed for the movie as they were leaving or entering a Billy Graham Crusade knew little to nothing about the ancient, pre-christian hero-gods (Buddha probably among them) whose stories are closely parallel the traditional story of Jesus. (There’s a clip from this part of the movie available online.) Though I knew something of Dionysus and Mithras, I didn’t know how close the parallels were. I also wasn’t aware of how the church explained the parallels away, according to Fleming.
The devil knew the prophesy and imitated it in advance.
“It having reached the Devil’s ears that the prophets had foretold the coming of Christ, the Son of God, he set the heathen Poets to bring forward a great many who should be called the sons of Jove. The Devil laying his scheme in this, to get men to imagine that the true history of Christ was of the same characters the prodigious fables related of the sons of Jove.”
But that’s to be expected of a being who some would say (with a straight face) planted dinosaur fossils in order to fool human beings and turn them away from god.
But probably the part of the movie that gives the most pause, and that drives home what Fleming is trying to get across is the section dealing with the rapture. There’s a clip of this section available online as well, including interviews with Sam Harris and the creator of RaptureLetters.Com. Bill Moyers gave a pretty good description of it.
Its outline is rather simple, if bizarre (the British writer George Monbiot recently did a brilliant dissection of it and I am indebted to him for adding to my own understanding): once Israel has occupied the rest of its ‘biblical lands,’ legions of the anti-Christ will attack it, triggering a final showdown in the valley of Armageddon. As the Jews who have not been converted are burned, the messiah will return for the rapture. True believers will be lifted out of their clothes and transported to heaven, where, seated next to the right hand of God, they will watch their political and religious opponents suffer plagues of boils, sores, locusts, and frogs during the several years of tribulation that follow.
Sounds almost like a blockbuster movie, huh? It should. It’s not just belief. It’s entertainment. And I’m not just talking about the Left Behind books and movies of late. The entertainment factor goes all the way back to a 1941 movie you can see online. (Besides Fleming’s film, it was also included in Diane Keaton’s documentary Heaven (1987), a favorite of mine.) There’s even an urban legend or two as well.
But before popping the popcorn or emailing the joke to friends, some attention should be paid to a finer point. George Monbiot, mentioned above by Moyers, lays it out so well that if I tried to find an excerpt I’d just end up posting the whole thing. And there’s a Gallup poll suggesting that something like 44% of Americans believe Jesus will return (and that they will meet him in the sky) in their lifetimes. I’ve searched high and low for the poll, and haven’t come up with a link to it. But Sam Harris apparently saw it.
According to several recent polls, 22 percent of Americans are certain that Jesus will return to earth sometime in the next fifty years. Another 22 percent believe that he will probably do so. This is likely the same 44 percent who go to church once a week or more, who believe that God literally promised the land of Israel to the Jews, and who want to stop teaching our children about the biological fact of evolution.
As the President is well aware, believers of this sort constitute the most cohesive and motivated segment of the American electorate. Consequently, their views and prejudices now influence almost every decision of national importance.
Harris puts it more succinctly in his interview for the movie.
Insofar as people like that elect our presidents or congressmen, or get elected as presidents or congressmen, it’s an incredibly dangerous state of affairs.
That depends, of course, on who you are and what you believe. Like I said before, it’s important to know who you’re dealing with and who’s driving.
Of course, Fleming’s movie has its weaknesses. Like I said earlier, there’s the issue of length. Given the depth and breadth of the issues covered, the film could have benefited from another 20 minutes or so spent laying things out in more detail, and that could have been filled by the DVD extras. The other matter is the somewhat irreverent tone at the film’s beginning, that seems to borrow from Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. It doesn’t quite fly, but it doesn’t derail the picture either. Fleming also takes an honest and courageous step that his detractors will take as a tailor made “aha moment,” when he reveals his own fundamentalist upbringing, and what caused him to walk away from it. He even includes a confrontation with the principle of his old christian school, who winds up walking out of the interview. Fleming could have left all this out of the movie, and most of the time he stays off camera, but I think he scores at least a couple of points by turning it on himself (though the last moment is a bit contrived) and being honest about his past and his own issues.
Though the film seems to be to serve as a sort of jumping off point for anyone who’s ever had even a sneaking suspicion of some of the things Fleming’s film presents, and to provide a whole list of authors and book for further reference. I’ve already made a note to add Incredible Shrinking Son of Man: How Reliable Is the Gospel Tradition? by Richard M. Price to my reading list, alongside The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design by Richard Dawkins, who also appears in the movie. I may also check out some of the writings of Richard Carrier, and Sam Harris’ next book which he says he’s working on in the interview. Fleming is working on another movie as well. I may even unpack my copy of Buddhism without Beliefs and give it another reading.
Before Watching The God Who Wasn’t There I was already pretty much a confirmed agnostic. I can’t say the movie convinced me to make the jump to atheism, but I’ve been pretty close to that line for a while now, and it’s at least nudged me a little closer to it…and convinced me to read up on it a bit.