Brian Fleming’s film, The God Who Wasn’t There, is described by a reviewer on the front cover of the DVD as “provocative.” That’s putting it mildly. From the very first moments, event before the film in media interviews, Flemming jumps right in to a film that is less documentary than a autobiographical polemic. By his own admission, this is essentially Flemming’s story of how he came to renounce Christianity. At the end we witness Flemming’s visit to his Christian grade school, aggressive (even hostile) questioning of the headmaster, and an on-camera affirmation of his renouncement.
The film is entertaining. It’s also manipulative, rather than informative. And it’s not the least bit persuasive. I doubt even many who think Christianity isn’t true would find it so because it’s full of fallacies, bad reasoning, bad facts, and emotional appeals. There are some decent (though not in the end definitive) arguments against Christianity, but Flemming didn’t use any of them. I could have made a better case, though admittedly not nearly as entertaining.
I did enjoy watching it, though, because it was so outlandish. Flemming is creative.
The cover of the DVD, part of the opening of the film, is a composite picture of Jesus made up of different images of Jesus. It tells us Flemming’s view – Jesus is only what people think he is. He’s not real.
The opening salvo shows the sun revolving around the earth – because that’s the way it was for hundreds of years according to the church. Flemming (narrating the film) makes the first of many fallacious conclusions. If Christianity could be wrong about that, they could be wrong about Jesus. Of course, one has nothing to do with the other and he offers literally nothing more to connect the two ideas. If the argument is supposed to be that Christians aren’t infallible, well, that’s hardly a news bulletin. I really was at a loss to understand what his point was other than an ad hominem.
Next the movie shows a number of people Flemming claims are offensive and dangerous Christians. These people range from Charles Manson to Jerry Falwell. He just shows them without any commentary, letting the weight of whatever bad baggage they have do the work.
A lengthy section of the film next offers a summary of the Bible using corny, old-fashioned Bible movies. It was pretty funny, but also very manipulative. I guess we’re supposed to get the message that Christianity is corny and old-fashioned. My niece who watched the movie with me could see through that device.
Flemming tells us that Christians are ignorant of their own history. He interviews several, ordinary Christians at some location asking them about Christian history. Not surprisingly, they can’t answer the questions. I doubt 95% of Christians could. That’s hardly an argument against Christianity, and it’s a criticism STR and many others have made of the church. The recent attention surrounding The Da Vinci Code motivated a lot of good teaching, but it’s a sad statement that Christians were caught off guard when they should have been prepared already.
But Flemming’s point is a very different one. The reason Christian leaders don’t teach what happened in the early years of Christianity, is because it’s all fiction. He narrates the early years of Christianity by showing a timeline that starts with 0 A.D. (There was no year 0.) He says that Mark was the first Gospel written and we know that it was written after 70 A.D. because it mentions the destruction of the temple. Did you catch that sleight of hand? He just smuggled in a huge presupposition and argument without stating it.
The book of Mark mentions the destruction of the temple in the form of a prophecy. But because Flemming doesn’t believe in prophecy, he concludes that it had to have been written after 70 A.D. There’s no other evidence for that late date other than a presupposition that goes unstated in the narration.
Then he tells us that Paul, who had a vision that apparently we’re supposed to think made him suspect, wrote most of the New Testament and never wrote about Jesus’ life. Why is that? Because he didn’t know anything about Jesus’ life – no one had told him. And we even have Paul’s own admission in Hebrews 8:4 where he write hypothetically about Jesus’ existence. Of course, Flemming has taken the statement out of context, which is actually a lengthy argument Paul is giving for why Jesus is the final High Priest who Himself is the sacrifice for our sin. And you have probably realize this already, but the reason Paul didn’t write bout Jesus’ life is because three other authors had already written extensively about it by the time Paul wrote his letters.
According to Flemming, this is all supposed to prove that Jesus – at least the Jesus of the New Testament – never lived and none of it ever happened.
He interviews a handful of people to bolster his case that Jesus’ life is mythology. The oddest of this array of guests are the proprietors of Snopes.com, experts on urban legends. Two other scholars tell us how the Gospels have much in common with other hero legends of the ancient world. And stacked against a checklist of typical events in these legends, Jesus doesn’t even rank first. But all of this is another example of fallacious reasoning. Because mythological deities are found in ancient literature, doesn’t mean that Jesus is one of them.
Flemming then examines what he considers to be Christians’ obsession with blood. As his prime evidence he shows a series of the bloodiest scenes from “The Passion of the Christ.” He, probably accurately, states that seeing that movie was the most significant spiritual experience in most Christian’s lives. What seems totally lost on him is that the movie was significant, to the extent it was, not because of the blood and suffering, but because of the significance of what it meant – substitution for our punishment and forgiveness. The movie was violent, but then so is the darkness of our sin and condition without forgiveness. That’s what was significant to Christians.
Flemming interviews Richard Carrier who builds on the violence involved in Christianity by citing the ways Christians have mistreated others. Flemming shows pictures of Abu Graib. For all the perspectives Abu Graib has been mustered to support, I never heard that it was motivated by Christianity.
Flemming’s final problem with the cross is that it means that God killed His own child. This is the divine child abuse some Christians have claimed is an unwarranted stumbling block. Greg responded to this on the June 18 radio show.
A long section of the movie is concerned with end times prophecies, the rapture, and threats of Hell. He interviews Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith (you can find a critique of this book on this blog by using the search engine), who calls Christians maladaptive because of this doctrine since it discourages people from planning for the future. That, he points out, is dangerous in the electorate. Flemming includes clips of an extensive interview he did with one Christian man at Raptureletters.com. This is supposed to be an indictment of all of Christianity. Of course, this kind of theology isn’t characteristic of the entire church or even church history. And because he can find some odd Christians, doesn’t indict all of Christianity. Flemming cites the popularity of the Left Behind series, assuming that all who read the books believe them as literally true. But that doesn’t follow. The Da Vinci Code was wildly popular, but that doesn’t mean readers of the book believed it. Could we make a similar indictment of Dan Brown or Da Vinci or conspiracy theorists because some who read the book did believe it? No.
Harris talks says that “faith is a conversation stopper.” And in the way he and Flemming – and some Christians – use the word, he’s right. Harris uses faith as wishing, irrational belief. Faith in that sense is a conversation stopper because why should someone else believe your personal fantasy? While that isn’t the Biblical sense of faith, it’s the one too many Christians practice as they offer Christianity as a personal preference. But the many examples of bad reasoning in this movie aren't exactly conversation starters, either.
What’s unfortunate is that no Christian whose faith is a conversation starter is included in this film. That’s why it’s a polemic rather than a documentary.
And the final scenes reveal why its Flemming’s autobiography. Apparently the Christian school he was raised in majored in end times theology and appeals to become a Christian, not because it was true and reasonable, but to avoid the terror of Hell. He tells us he was born again several times, but struggled with the kind of Christianity he learned about. Apparently, he never learned anything beyond this to build his faith. He never felt an encouragement to think about Christianity.
His reading of the Bible is that the only sin that can’t be forgiven is denying the Holy Spirit, which is equivalent to doubting, which is equivalent to thinking. So the greatest sin in Christianity is to think. He shows us the equation: doubt = death. Sitting in his grade school chapel he turns the camera on himself and says, “I deny the Holy Spirit.”
In the end, I was left feeling quite sad for Flemming, though I doubt he wants my sympathy. He seemed to me very angry at God and the Christians who he believes perpetrated a lie to him. It's sad to me that he feels so compelled by such bad reasons, and I hope that he isn't so angry that he isn't open to good reasons to believe in Jesus. And I think that’s what the documentary is really about.