Thursday, July 7, 2011

The God Who Wasn't There: a Scholarly Response

The documentary film, The God Who Wasn’t There, by Brian Flemming makes a lot of statements, but not all of them are obvious to the film’s creator. The filmmaker is a former Fundamentalist-Christian, turned Fundamentalist-Atheist. Thus, his interpretive lens is trapped by his past and present bias; unable to see Christianity, its scriptures, its doctrines, or traditions outside of that Fundamentalist viewpoint. Strategically, the documentarian attempts to turn “Moderate Christians” and Fundamentalist Christians against one another, by claiming that Fundamentalists have it right. In the film, Flemming uses historical criticism and literary criticism to bolster his anti-theology. However, his historical criticism is weak, his literary criticism fails miserably, and he completely ignores any cultural analysis.

In a historical timeline, the documentarian refers to the time between the gospel events and the gospel recordings, as the period “everyone forgot.” He goes on to state that this was a forty year time span. As for forgetting, in the words of scholar Rowan Williams, “There is little or no trace in the first Christian decades of a Christianity unmarked by devotion to Jesus as a living agent.” In contrast to the film’s proposed 70 A.D. authorship, of the gospel accounts, and the forty year gap between events and their recordings: the first accounts of Mark could be as early as 65 A.D. (Christopher Tuckett). Additionally, Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians and Galatians were recorded around 50 A.D. (Markus Bockmuehl). Okay, so what, the film’s historical timeline is off by two, possibly three, decades; Flemming still has literary criticism.

In conjunction with the filmmaker’s weak historical criticism, there are at least three major literary criticism failures. The first, claiming that “God isn’t a moderate,” the film quotes Luke 19:27 for support, and ignores that this is the end of a parabolic text. In other words, Jesus was telling a story. The second, inferring that Paul never thought Jesus was, “on Earth,” the documentary uses a quote from a verse in the book of Hebrews. Yet, if “nobody told Paul,” why does he mention Jesus’ interaction with Peter and the twelve (1 Cor. 15:3-7)? Nevertheless, many scholars – conservative and liberal alike – indicate that we don’t know the author of the book of Hebrews.

The third fail, claims that the Gospel according to Mark was not based on history; this automatically implies that the accounts of Matthew, Luke, and John weren’t either – because the documentarian, Brian Flemming, says they all came from Mark’s account. Using the film’s position against itself – because the Synoptic Problem (Matthew and Luke) and the Two-level Drama concept (John) are too great for the scope of this post – if the events of the gospel accounts were not historical, why did non-Christian figures in history, like Josephus, mention that Jesus was put to death by Pilate? Perhaps, The God Who Wasn’t There showed up in the scholarship. Perhaps, The God Who Wasn’t There is gracious enough to redeem a trapped interpretive lens. Perhaps, The God Who Wasn’t There is no reduced God, to this “Moderate Christian.” The God who is there, died for you.

 For more thoughts on this film visit:The Logic of the Cross.


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