Elayne Riggs' Journal (for Leah)

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Is It Really Octopus?

A review of The God Who Wasn't There

First of all, I'd like to thank associate producer Susan Whiteaker from Beyond Belief Media for sending me this DVD, and to apologize to her for my lack of a positive review. You sends your press kit, you takes your chances.

The film itself starts out promising and entertaining, especially the Life of Jesus film segments, but the visuals and soundtrack seem to emit more razzle-dazzle than substance. Writer-director-producer Brian Flemming's narration sounds more like a podcast or chat than a professional presentation. It's not clear why he chooses to do it himself until the end, which I found the most fascinating segment. That's when Flemming finally puts himself on camera and into his subject, discussing his own fundamentalist Christian upbringing and how he'd learned that the only unforgivable sin according to Jesus' teachings is to "blaspheme against the Holy Spirit." Of course, he interprets this differently than I would. To him, this means doubting the existence of God. Can't it just as easily be interpreted as going against the spirit within all of us that strives to do right by others and follow a moral code? In other words, if we deny our humanity, our intrinsic need to rise above base instincts and be good people, that seems like it would indeed be an unforgivable sin against social progress and personal enlightenment. So this segment doesn't really condemn the Bible or Christianity as much as Flemming's interpretation of same.

And this "all about me"-ism is proven in the docu's culmination. Yes, I'm going to give away the ending, because what Flemming does to Dr. Ronald Sipus – an educator whose faith I absolutely do not share in any way, shape or form, yet someone who acquits himself more professionally than just about anyone else in the film – mirrors what he has done to his viewers by making this in the first place. He purports to examine the lack of empirical evidence for the existence of Jesus, but never really does. What this film is actually all about is Brian Flemming and his personal quest for a cathartic confrontation with his past. And I think that would make a terrific subject, particularly as he comes off as an utter ass in his interview with Sipus, who justifiably accuses Flemming of setting up the interview under false pretenses just so he can vent his own frustration. Flemming is either so oblivious or so confident in the righteousness of his personal cause that he leaves this all on camera! The result, at least for me, was to utterly discount any cogent points he might have made in the rest of the film in favor of personal vindictiveness, which enlightens absolutely nobody. (Had he actually wanted to make the film he claims this is, Flemming would immediately have followed up on Sipus' offer to show him empirical evidence of Jesus' historical existence, but he utterly ignored that in favor of his own agenda.)

Now, to specifics. The interviews with random Christians didn't work for me, beyond the first one (people's conception of Jesus), which I understood and was able to allow for given the need to set parameters for the subject to be explored. But even I couldn't provide the mythos of Dionysus or Osiris off the top of my head without looking them up, and I've studied mythology! These folks seem to be there only to be ridiculed, much like the hapless interviewees on a Jaywalking or Ham on the Street segment (hence my title for this review post, based on the episode featuring reactions to the Octodog). I wasn't as interested as Flemming obviously is in "irreverent" mean-spirited mockery. I had hoped to be educated.

I wanted to know more, for instance, about the parallels of Jesus' story with that of other mythohistoric characters, and thought this was glossed over way too quickly. Why not expand your interview subjects to also include noted historical theologians, actual thinking people who are also religious? Why not attempt to study the historical record with commentary from more than one side of things?

Instead, Flemming spends an inordinate amount of time condemning fundies for cherry-picking which Biblical passages to emphasize or ignore (i.e., hatred of gays, way too long a segment which makes things stray from the premise even more) whilst doing a fair amount of cherry-picking other passages to prove its points. And it's all over the place. It brings in lots of subjects that have nothing to do with its main premise, and which are easily argued even by laypeople like me who don't know a lot about Christianity. Some examples:

† The lengthy "Passion of the Christ" excerpts are used without permission almost gleefully to make points (some Christians are obsessed with blood, and violence sells) which, again, have nothing to do with the premise of Jesus not having existed, and the accompanying rolling scroll of every single instance of blood and gore found in the movie seems as fetishistic as Gibson's production itself.

† Doesn't Flemming's claim that "The Inquisition was not a perversion of Christian doctrine, but an expression of it" depend on which Christian doctrine you mean? It's like saying that Charles Dickens' point in A Christmas Carol was Scrooge's stinginess and fear rather than his reformation and the transformative power of the holiday and of family. Once more, lots of cherry-picking here, seeking passages that specifically fit Flemming's premise while ignoring other passages, willfully refusing looking at the big picture. Most Christians if asked would probably sum up the goal of their religion as "love thy neighbor," as the Golden Rule is considered the biggie even though it's admittedly hardly given more than lip service by many professed practitioners.

† By the same token, isn't the whole anti-Semitism aspect connected with Jesus' death ("Jews killed our Savior") just an interpretation by some factions, rather than a matter of Biblical record? Other factions may see the moral of Jesus' death sentence as another warning that all organized religions tend toward corruption. And this is coming from a Jew who heard the "you killed Jesus" accusation a lot when I was growing up, but who's also aware of many Christians who've never encountered that mentality. Assuming it's predominant worldwide and endemic to the religion seems a bit myopic and provincial, just like assuming Rapturism (which, yes, we all know is dangerous and deceptive) has as much prevalence.

† I suppose that Flemming's proclamation that "moderate Christianity makes no sense" as he trots out footage of Pat Robertson and his ilk makes sense if you buy into the fundies' premise that everything in the Bible should be taken literally rather than as allegory. To paraphrase Flemming's tone, is it ironic that so many people around the time when Jesus was said to be alive seemed to understand the idea of allegory better than axe-to-grind documentarians?

Overall, I don't think Flemming proves his case that anything modern so-called Christians are doing now, or indeed what atrocities people have committed in the name of their religion going back hundreds of years, has any bearing on whether or not there was a historical Jesus. To throw in all this extraneous, attention-grabbing stuff feels like a desperate need to drive home the point repeatedly that Flemming believes these people to be wrongheaded to the point of tragic irony if they're supposedly worshipping a myth. This makes sense considering he's a former fundamentalist who's likely as strident in his newfound contempt for what he used to believe as an ex-smoker is about the evils of cigarettes, but it adds no credibility to his purported thesis and belabors the obvious. Ooh, Charles Manson killed in the name of a Christ that I claim didn't exist, and look! the sun is scheduled to rise in the east tomorrow!

Lastly, here's the part where I talk about how this is not the film I would have wanted it to be, rather than what it is. I normally don't appreciate when reviewers do this, so please forgive me, but with something like this the temptation of the Christ to speculate on what might have been is too great. In my opinion, we don't need to be told what we already know. It's, you should pardon the expression, preaching to the converted. I'm not even sure at whom something like this would be aimed, other than people already familiar with and contemptuous of fundamentalism (in other words, people exactly like Flemming), and what purpose does it serve to mock ordinary believers even more? Why not instead, using as full a historical record as you can manage – including an exploration of how outlawed cults formed and operated in those days, relying on oral rather than written tradition, handed down largely by women who then got marginalized from any authority once a religion became established as Constantine did with Christianity in the 4th century – rather than cherry-picking and speculation, go into more detail on how you find no evidence that Jesus existed? The film's graphics and music have already shown that Flemming has the knowledge of how to make this entertaining and interesting. He needs to, again pardon the expression, have enough faith in his abilities to do this by sticking to and expanding upon his stated premise, using the tools available to other professional documentarians, such as interviews with credentialed experts from all sides of a subject this controversial. In other words, Flemming's biggest error is in making this about himself and not admitting that it's about himself. And he should have asked Dr. Sipus to produce that empirical evidence when it was offered to him.

I came into this documentary wanting to like it – I watch enough "historical Jesus" and "Jesus as depicted through the centuries" programs to be intrigued by the subject matter in the first place. But willful blindness, self-indulgence and biased interpretation, whether in religion or documentary filmmaking, is something better avoided in favor of level-headed thoroughness and a comprehensive evidential record. I'm afraid I'm still awaiting the definitive documentary to tackle the subject of whether Jesus was real.