Thursday, August 24, 2006

Walking With Jesuses

If you enjoy this essay, please consider purchasing a copy of Where Dawkins Went Wrong and Other Theological Blockbusters from this address - a collection of  some of the best and most-linked-to essays from this blog and its predecessor. It contains my five part assault critique of 'The God Delusion', along with essays on gay bishops, the 'gospel' of Judas, the 'legend' of the three wise men.

...and then one Thursday, nearly 2,000 years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change...

The Genesis Code; The Gospel Code; The Magdalene Deception – W.H Smiths bookshelves are sagging under the weight of silly conspiracy theories about Jesus. So the time is right for the BBC to do a documentary called The Miracles of Jesus. The series promises that it will 'decipher' the meanings of Jesus' miracles. A cipher, you see, is a sort of code. If we can fit the words 'Jesus' and 'Code' into the same sentence, then maybe the young people will turn on the TV during the godslot. Or, on the other hand, maybe they won't.
The shtick is that the programme is presented by a Muslim, BBC war-reporter Rageh Omar, who pretends that he is looking at the Gospels with an outsider's eye. The last time the BBC did a major series on Jesus, it was presented by Jeremy Bowen, another news reporter. God forbid that religious documentaries should be presented by historians, archaeologists or clergymen. That would be old fashioned and deferential; it would suggest that we lived in a world where experts taught and everyone else learns from them. TV shows of this kind have to be presented by naive seekers-after-truth. Unfortunately, it's clear that Omar is better informed than the format permits him to let on. He keeps saying 'many scholars believe....' which makes us suspect that he has read actual books – but he isn't allowed to tell us which books, or what they said.
The hidden message which he finds in the Gospels is – and stop me if you've heard this before – that Jesus believed himself to be the Son of God. Not only that, but he thought that is was necessary to suffer a violent death in order to overthrow Satan. Oh, and his disciples very probably believed that he had come back from the dead – in what was 'perhaps' the greatest miracle of all.
Reith forbid that a Sunday afternoon TV series about Jesus should contain anything so mundane as any actual passages from the Bible. Oh no; it uses 'special photography and computer generated images to bring the miracles of Jesus to life'. That is to say, actors wander around dusty landscapes and roll their eyes a lot. Jesus looks Wild and Strange. The Disciples look Surprised and Foreign. There are subtitles. There is some fairly tasteful pre-watershed flagellation, so I assume that the language must be Aramaic. We get to see the scenes repeatedly, from different angles, sometimes in black and white. Jesus turns water into wine in Matrix-style bullet time.
Since Walking With Dinosaurs the buffer-zone between documentary and fiction has been hopelessly compromised. A sensible viewer might reasonably watch a computer generated reconstruction and say 'How do we know that the disciples laughed when Jesus refused to exorcise the gentile woman's daughter?' or 'How do we know that a brontosaurus marked out its territory with wee?' The answer, in both cases, is 'We made it up. Out of our heads.' But Omar is inclined to treat the filmed reconstructions as if they were the events themselves. He then sets about decoding their meanings. Since the dramas are based on someone's interpretation of what must have happened, this is a dangerously circular argument. Each scene is introduced with a little caption that says something like 'Sea of Galilee, A.D 28' which insidiously suggests that we are watching documentary, rather than historical fiction.
So, after he has been baptized by John the Baptist, we are told that Jesus had a mystical experience, seeing a dove and hearing the voice of God in his head. We see a computer generated dove super-imposed over the actor's face, to make it quite clear that this is a subjective psychological event experienced by Jesus alone. When mystics have such visionary experiences they often become quite confused and have to spend weeks working out the meaning of their vision. And sure enough, we see Jesus spending the month after his baptism in the wilderness, looking very agitated and confused. Omar draws various conclusions from this: Jesus state of mind suggests that he himself was surprised by his vision, and doubtful about the nature of his mission and his role. The trouble with this is, the fourth Gospel is quite explicit that it was John, not Jesus who saw the the Dove. ('And John bare record, saying 'I saw the spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it abode upon him.') The other Gospels could be read either way. And you have to push the text quite hard to put Jesus in a confused state during the next 40 days. The Gospels describes a personal Devil tempting him, and Jesus responding confidently with quotations from scripture.
All of which is a shame, because Omar's central argument is actually rather good. Jesus was not the only exorcist and healer in first century Palestine – so why did he inspire devotion in some people and hatred in others? The answer is that his miracles conveyed a very specific and shocking message, quite different from the other wonder-workers. For example:

  • Exorcists traditionally used spells and rituals to evoke the power of God: Jesus simply told evil spirits to go away, as if he personally had authority over them. But the only person who has authority over Satan is God. It is very significant that the Gadarene swine ran into the sea, because Leviathan is a symbol of the devil, Leviathan lives in the sea, and in the Old Testament, YHWH is sometimes depicted overcoming Leviathan. (Er...nice try.)

  • When a crippled man was brought to him, instead of healing him, Jesus announced that his sins were forgiven – something which only God can do. Omar implies that in saying this, he is pointing out (or possibly deciphering) a previously neglected significance. In fact, the meaning of the story is absolutely explicit in the text of Mark's Gospel.'Why doth this man thus speak blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God only?'

  • On another occasion, Jesus calmed a storm on the sea of Galilee. He seemed to be giving orders to the elements – which everyone knew was God's job. Indeed, one of the Psalms specifically talks about God controlling a storm. (We aren't told which Psalm, because that might make us switch over to Emmerdale instead.) But there was no need to do any deciphering to discover this, because it is quite explicit in the synoptic account. 'Who can this man be? Even the wind and the waves obey him!'

  • Finally, the disciples are shocked (in the film, if not in the Bible) when he changes his mind and heals the gentiles daughter; because Jesus appears to be unilaterally extending the privileges of the chosen people to a goy – which surely is God's prerogative. Omar goes so far as to say that Jesus himself is surprised by this; a pretty weak point, since Jesus has on several occasions argued from the Old Testament that God is concerned with non-Jews.

Most interestingly, we are told (without supporting evidence) that firstcenturyjews regarded Rome, the occupier of the Holy City, as the immanent representation of Satan on earth. The old conundrum – 'If Jesus was a spiritual leader, why did he end up being killed as a traitor by the Romans? But if he was a political revolutionary in what sense was he a spiritual leader?' turns out to be a false dichotomy. Jesus 'would have' regarded curing demon-possessed Cyro-Phoenicians and freeing Jerusalem from the Romans as the same kind of action – kicking Satan out of places he wasn't supposed to be. If this is so, then throwing himself on Roman justice and allowing himself to be killed on the symbol of Roman oppression was a clear and symbolic way of saying 'I am engaged in the ultimate conflict with Satan.'
What the programme needed – and I never thought I would say this about a BBC religious documentary – was a healthy dose of skepticism. It is a good idea to discuss the significance of the miracles as stories, without wasting too much time worrying about whether it is scientifically or philosophically possible for them to have occurred. But once you have decided to treat something as a story, surely you have to ask: Who told this story? Under what circumstances? To whom? What, to coin a phrase, was it's life-setting? But Omar accepts uncritically that the Gospels are reports about incidents in Jesus' life – possibly inaccurate and biased, but essentially historical accounts. The story of Jesus temptation is, for him, a psychologically plausible event in the life of a visionary: the idea that '40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness' could be an allegorical or symbolic reference to the book of Exodus isn't even hinted at. We are told that 'some scholars believe' that the calming of the sea isn't literally true, because it is 'just too spectacular.' But he doesn't mention that the parallels with the book of Jonah – or indeed, the allusion to Psalm 107 – make other scholars think that the story is a literary creation.
Perhaps this doesn't matter. Mark reproduces a story in which Jesus acted as if he was God. And Mark certainly believed that Jesus actually was God, which is why he thought the story worth telling. It may not make much difference whether he was repeating a story told him by an eye-witness (say, Peter); recording one element of a 'Jesus tradition' that had been embellished by many hands; or making it up himself. Either way, the meaning is the same. And this really is as far as you can go. The New Testament writers write about a Jesus who believed he was God, because that is what they believed; and what they believed he believed. Is it what The Historical Jesus believed? We certainly can't find out by reading the Gospels and trying to 'decipher' what is blindingly obvious on every page.
When the BBC transmits this kind of programme, some Christian always stands up and says 'Pah! You wouldn't make a film that was nearly so skeptical about Mohammed!' I would be inclined to draw a different conclusion. You wouldn't make a film about Mohammed that gradually and tentatively came to the conclusion that he may perhaps have believed that the Koran was written by Allah and delivered to him by an Angel – and which expected your audience to be surprised by this information. Most people have got a rough idea what Islam teaches about the Prophet. But despite an Established Church and a degree of compulsory religious indoctrination that would be un-believable to most Americans, the population of the UK seems to be largely ignorant about The Jesus of the Gospels. (Look at the furore over The Passion of the Christ: most commentators seemed genuinely not to know what significance the Crucifixion has in Christianity.) Most of us seem to sincerely believe that Hippy Jesus – the one who preached peace and love and was murdered for it by those pesky Italians – is the one venerated by the Church. So I guess there is some point in the BBC using CGI to remind us that Scary Jesus – the person who said he was God and lived up to it – is the only Jesus you'll find in the Bible.
And yes. They do quote the appropriate bit of C.S Lewis.


Anonymous said...

I think the story of the Gadarene swine is a bit of symbolic wish-fulfillment: the appalling Hellenist settlers get to have their repulsive food beasts possessed by demons, and their drinking water is then polluted by the carcasses of the infested swine. It's like the story of the Golden Calf: not only was it destroyed, but Moses had it powdered, dissolved in water, and he then forced the idolators to drink it.

I know the story doesn't sound very Christian this way, but would you necessarily expect it to?

P.S. The C S Lewis quotation - not all in Plato, obviously.

Porlock Junior said...

The appropriate bit of C. S. Lewis -- not the Dreaded Trilemma?!

Helen Louise said...

I thought the visual effects were rather annoying, getting in the way of the point. Surely no one watches something called "The Miracles of Jesus" for the special effects?

As usual, I thought your review was very good. I was actually mildly disappointed that the conclusion of episode 2 was that Jesus considered himself divine, since AFAIK Muslims don't generally believe that, and it would have been interesting to present the argument that he didn't.

Anonymous said...

Great review, unfortunately I missed the last in the series. Tried to video it but as usual, something went wrong and i only got the last 20 minutes!

I was disappointed when the programme didn't look into the present day Church!

For a programme called The Miracles of Jesus, you'd have thought there might be something in there about all the countless miracles taking place in our world in this present day.
Jesus is alive and He is still at work performing miracles in and through His followers.