The Director who wasn’t There

In retrospect it is difficult to understand the popularity of Brian Flemming’s “documentary” film, The God who wasn’t There (2005), on atheistic websites that advertise themselves as bastions of education and rationality. Curious about all the hoopla, I finally buckled down and subjected myself to this viciously self-serving little diatribe.

The viewer might intuit that trouble lies ahead when the film asserts that for thousands of years “the sun revolved around the earth” – meaning, of course, that this erroneous idea was held to be true through the ages. No sooner does the film refute this terracentric fallacy than it asks, “If Christianity was wrong about that, could it be wrong about other things?” Missing here, obviously, is the simple fact that terracentrism was a cosmology held by most ancient people, from astronomers, astrologers, philosophers,  to merchants and sailors and emperors and, finally, priest-kings, prophets and other kinds of religionists. To select Christianity out of all of these candidates – and moreover, to ignore Christianity’s resiliency in admitting its incorrect involvement in pre-scientific mistaken identity – is symptomatic of Flemming’s entire approach and indeed the totality of his dysfunctional film.

Flemming soon repeats his folly. Introducing us to various “faces of Christianity” – the literally smiling faces of believers – the director-narrator darkly warns that there is another face of Christianity. The screen immediately cuts to the visage of mass-murderer Charles Manson, whose only involvement with Christianity that I am aware of was that he – and some of his “Family”  – sometimes thought of him as “Jesus”. Frankly, this egregiously nasty and wildly phoney association tempted me to stop watching then and there. But, because the film was advertised as containing interviews with serious scholars, I pressed on, to my chagrin.

Flemming’s main thesis is 1) that Jesus never existed and 2) that Flemming was screwed by Christianity. The film’s tone clearly suggests that point 2) is motivating point 1). Fleming has a chip on his shoulder and an axe to grind, and this personally negative tone falls across the film like a leprous shadow.

Regarding point 1), the film does present some scholarly reasons for thinking that perhaps there was no Jesus of history, that the original Jesus was a cosmic savior-hero whose exploits were only later condensed and reduced to the confines of a single historical human being and his historical life. The theory is intriguing. For instance, it goes some distance in explaining how, early on in the Christian story, so many different images of Jesus and so many varying christologies sprang into existence – and why the figure of Jesus has been reified into almost as many “fits” as there are scholars doing the research. From a certain perspective – the “mythicist” view – it looks as if a mythological being was being brought down to earth and gradually, inconsistently, clothed with human and semi-human attributes.

While this theory is worthy enough, my personal view at this time is based on the scholarly consensus that seven of Paul’s letters are “authentic” – that is, they have their major source in Paul’s own writing (at least his writing as taken down by scribes). In Paul’s letter (epistle) to the Galatians and scattered elsewhere through these authentic texts are Paul’s references to his personal acquaintance with Jesus’ own closest disciples, including James and Peter (Simon, Kephas). Now, unless these disciples completely imagined or invented their Master, it is clear that Paul was in contact with people who 1) knew that Jesus existed and 2) knew him personally. The fact that Paul frequently mentions the Judean disciples in semi-contemptuous terms (unlike them, Paul has a special revelation “not received from men”; the Judeans are mad circumcisers, etc.)  leads most scholars, via “the criterion of embarrassment”, to accept the disciples’ historicity, and therefore by implication, Jesus’ own historical reality. And this is where I place myself: the historical, pre-Easter Jesus was a Jewish mystic, parabolic teacher, and revitalization movement founder; the post-Easter Jesus was the risen, living, angelic, exalted/glorified Christ-Spirit, but still portrayed in primarily Jewish terms.  So, yes, for me, the pre-Easter Jesus was historical. But he doesn’t need to be, and if research should sway the consensus in the mythicist direction, I will need to re-evaluate my position.

As mentioned, this is where the film is best. Its clips of biblical scholar and H.P. Lovecraft afficianado Robert M. Price are informative and help to make a case for a mythicist, non-historical view of Christ. But most of the other interview material is peripheral at best and misleading at worst. The material featuring prominent atheists Sam Harris and Richard Carrier is moderately interesting but is utterly useless in making Flemming’s case for the mythical Christ. Rather, it only serves to unmask the director’s anti-religion agenda, as if to associate mythicism with a necessarily anti-religious and atheistic point of view. On the contrary – as Price himself has said many times – mythicism properly understood is a powerfully spiritual means of understanding world and self. Price has even cited myth-proponent Carl G. Jung’s famous reply to the question of his belief in God, “No, I don’t believe; I know”, as evidence of the psychological value of experiencing one’s own  “mystical, gnostic, inner” deity. But all such positives are ignored or mocked by Flemming’s shallow debunkery.

At the end of the film, Flemming abandons all show of objectivity, going back to his former conservative-Christian school to “interview” one of its chiefs, who requests that the taping be stopped. The problem seems to be that Flemming set up the interview under false pretenses, that the questions he formerly indicated would be asked were very different from the ones he actually does ask during the interview. His interviewee finally walks off-screen, to Flemming’s impotent, whining protests.  One’s sympathy falls toward the apparently victimized school head rather than to the corrosive Flemming.

As a final blow on behalf of Flemming’s self-justification, he finds that the school’s chapel is unlocked, a fortuitous opportunity for him to tiptoe in and make snide remarks about his endarkened, pre-atheistic student years. In his last image of himself, the chapel interior in the background, Flemming triumphantly proclaims that he has committed that famous Gospel “sin against the Holy Spirit” – and is proud of it. Finally, the true motivation of this film emerges: its director is hurt and petulant. And because of this, although he mis-states that he went searching for Jesus (but paradoxically only ended up finding Robert Price, Sam Harris, Richard Carrier and other mere atheistic mortals), the film fatally suffers. Aside from the few segments previously mentioned, this film is not worth watching. It is a shame that it gets so much free publicity on sites whose operators should – and unfortunately, in most cases, probably do – know better.

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