I am thrilled to greet the arrival of several new movies that celebrate my faith! You may have viewed some of them and may be eagerly anticipating others: Batman Versus Superman, Deadpool, Captain America: Civil War and X-Men: Apocalypse. But there are other flicks which I am planning to avoid like the plague: Killing Jesus, Risen, The Young Messiah, Miracles from Heaven, and God’s Not Dead 2. I am about to do what you’re never supposed to do: comment on these flicks without having seen ‘em. Well, not exactly, because I intend only to make a few
broad remarks based on what the commercials reveal about them. If I am somehow misrepresenting them it is because the commercials are misrepresenting them, and I doubt that. But please feel free to correct, chide, and excoriate me if I get any of them wrong.
You probably know what I think of Bill O’Reilly’s book Killing Jesus. I wrote a detailed refutation of it, a book called Killing History: Jesus in the No Spin Zone. I very much doubt the movie version is any better. The book lent itself to easy adaptation because it was already fictional in form, though it loudly claimed to be pure history. It was anything but. By the way, unless I am mistaken, O’Reilly sneeringly dismissed my book without profaning his lips with my name or the book’s title, but I’m pretty sure mine was the only book he could have been referring to.
Risen looks to be a fictional apologetic (is there any other kind?) meant to buttress the faith of fundamentalist viewers in precisely the same way that End-Times movies (Left Butt-cheek, er, I mean, Left Behind, Distant Thunder, etc.) do. The Rapture flicks (one can hardly dignify them with the term “films,” and many are so amateurish that I even hesitate to call them “movies.”) try to reinforce the ever-disappointed expectation of the Second Coming by seeming to depict the eschatological events in a contemporary setting, so the viewer may think, “Yes! This is what’s going to happen! It looks so real, not just some fantasy!” It’s all an ad hoc stop-gap that encourages the drooping faith of the faithful. Well, Risen does the same thing with the resurrection of Jesus. This drama of a Roman soldier being dragged kicking and screaming to faith in the resurrection substitutes for the sketchy, fragmentary, and contradictory Easter accounts of the gospels. A connected narrative with well-delineated characters like us, people who might be convinced that Jesus rose from the dead if there were any real reason to think so. Apologists ask, rhetorically, how the skeptic can explain the origin of the gospels’ “eyewitness reports” if there was no event to give rise to them. But none of the gospel resurrection stories read like anyone’s memories. Instead, they closely resemble myths of Pythagoras, Asclepius, and Apollonius of Tyana. Some are cobbled together from out-of-context and unacknowledged quotations from Daniel. Several quite different Easter tales claim to represent the very first appearance of the risen Jesus. Some include important features (e.g., guards posted at the tomb) that no other gospel has but must have had if they were facts. What the gospels offer us is not convincing, so why not pretend we are looking over the shoulder of someone who might have been present on the hypothetical scene? It is, in fact, all pretend, faith based on fiction.
The Young Messiah might as well have been called “Jesus in Smallville.” This Jesus must have arrived on earth in a rocket launched from heaven before it exploded. In one scene, it has Mary tell the boy Jesus not to display his super powers till he is grown and embarking on his ministry—just like Pa Kent tells young Clark in Man of Steel. Of course, parallels with Superman are unavoidable since the Man of Tomorrow was obviously a Christ analog to begin with (though created by two Jewish lads, Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster). But the point is that Superman becomes a mirror in which we see what Jesus really is: a mythic superhero.
Interestingly, Jesus’ legend, like Superman’s, developed back-to-front (“The first shall be last,” I guess). Superman debuted in 1938 as an adult hero, but he sold so many comics that his publishers decided to create Superboy, “the Adventures of Superman when he was a boy.” Again, enormously popular, so next we read the exploits of (ready?) Superbaby! The same thing happened with Jesus Christ. In Mark, Jesus’ miracle-working ministry and divine Sonship began when he was an adult (Luke estimates Jesus was “about thirty”). But Christian imagination started filling in the gap of “the missing years.” So Luke tells a story of Jesus at 12 years old, confounding the Temple scribes with his prodigious wisdom. Several Apocryphal Infancy Gospels depict Jesus’ boyhood adventures, e.g., striking dead a playground bully. And Jesus becomes Superbaby in Matthew’s and Luke’s Nativity stories, where the Wise Men and the Shepherds visit Jesus’ rocketship, er, manger. The Young Messiah is a cinematic Infancy Gospel.
Miracles from Heaven is based on a medical anomaly that, however, would not even command Fox Mulder’s attention: some kid with neurological problems falls out of a window (or something) and is not only unhurt, but cured. I am not convinced this is other than a pious fraud, but if it really happened—great! But isn’t it jumping the gun to declare it a miracle? Believers constantly turn ignorance into faith (which is why they turn out to be the same thing): “We can’t explain how this happened, so it must have been an invisible deity at work!” That’s like concluding that space aliens must have built the pyramids since we can’t quite figure how the Egyptians could have done it. Similar ancient engineering feats, once baffling, have since been cracked, so it seems worth waiting to see if there is after all some mundane reaction. After all, there’s no reason to attribute epilepsy to demons anymore.
There’s another problem in the premise of this flick. Does it not occur to these people that, if their daughter was really the recipient of a miraculous healing granted by God, it would seem to mean he ignored the prayers of very many other afflicted children? The fact that it didn’t implies that calling it a miracle is really a mystification of saying, “Wow! I can’t believe the luck! Whew!”
And calling it “an act of God” really means the same thing it means in an insurance policy: it was simply an event, dumb luck, not a deed. To say, “God did it” is like saying, “God knows!” In other words, no human being knows. No one did it. But believers, ever eager to claim pretty much anything as evidence for their faith, blur the distinction and wind up thinking the Omnipotent Lord of the Universe broke into the immanent chain of natural causation just for the benefit of one crummy mortal—and not for the rest of the poor saps in the same boat. (You might want to follow up this reasoning in D.Z. Phillips’s book The Concept of Prayer, which shines a Wittgensteinian light on religious language.)
God’s Not Dead 2 looks to be perhaps the silliest of all these flicks, if only because the ax-grinding fraud Lee Strobel is featured in it. It vilifies college professors who undermine the faith of fundamentalist students. In the commercial, the mean old atheist professor informs his flock of tender lambs that the goal of the course is to prove that “God is dead!” (I hate to see Ray Wise in this piece of propagandistic Bullgeschichte. I liked him so much in Robocop, Twin Peaks, 24, Agent Carter, and AM1200.) Of course this is a ludicrous caricature, which Billy Graham’s film Three, which had a similar theme, avoided. But why draw such a vicious distortion? Unless you have some nutty professor who is himself a furious, warpath-treading ex-fundie (and I guess there must be some), God’s Not Dead 2 seems to be demonizing the appropriate task of college education: professors are supposed to challenge their students to consider new perspectives, and this is naturally upsetting for many students. Their alarms start going off (“Danger! Danger, Will Robinson!”), and in their defensive panic, they imagine the professor is fiendishly trying to deprive them of their precious beliefs. Sadly, the same closed-mindedness is everywhere permeating college education these days, and not just vis-à-vis religion. Hyper-sensitive PC students retreat to “safe zones” where they need not fear even hearing views against which their ideology predisposes them. Against the cowardice of fragile fundamentalists and “hear no evil” Leftist ideologues, those who want free and vigorous discussion must repeat Kant’s challenge, “Dare to know!”
So says Zarathustra.
Patronize me! Please!
As several of you have advised me to do, Qarol and I have set up a Patreon account. This is a wonderful way of bringing into the 21st century the venerable tradition of patronage: donors supporting artists, philosophers, and scholars, leaving them free to devote more time to their valuable work. In the past, it was only wealthy aristocrats who patronized creators, but Patreon democratizes patronage, inviting interested supporters to contribute whatever they can each month. As Father Guido Sarducci said about those “thirty-five cent sins,” “they mount up!” As you know, I am busy at (too) many things: this blog, my many book projects, the Bible Geek podcast, debating and speaking, and editing fiction anthologies (plus writing my own stories). I have no teaching position because my well-known writings have made me notorious, but I still must share what I know, share it with you.
It would be a very great help to me and my family if we could receive enough support on a regular basis to pay our bills and to allow Carol to leave her (low-paying) job to become my partner and administrative assistant. I would also love to pay my volunteer Bible Geek producers for their heroic efforts on my behalf and yours. Also, Qarol and I would like to share our Heretics Anonymous discussion groups with you, on-line and in person. Your generosity will help us cover our current projects and enable us to expand our efforts. I hope you will consider it! Thanks! https://www.patreon.com/robertmprice