One could hardly think of a topic more likely to get people pissed off than questioning the very existence of Christ. I mean, you can bash Bush, you can harp on capitalism and you can question the automotive industry's agenda. But in America, going after Jesus is tantamount to burning a flag, eating an eagle, or spitting on the Constitution.
And in the current atmosphere of increasing conservatism and moral rectitude, Jesus has become more popular and more topical than ever. So director Brian Flemming figures now is the perfect time to go after him.
The thesis at the heart of Flemming's documentary is that Jesus, the man, the risen son of God, never really existed. Moreover, that Jesus is merely a construct of hero mythology - it caught on and now the particulars of the matter are nearly indistinguishable from the fiction.
Flemming lays out his facts reasonably, rationally. It is true that prior to the appearance of Jesus Christ there had been countless hero tales of messianic figures who, like Christ, were killed, rose from the dead on the third day, and performed many miracles. The mythologies of Osiris, Mithras, and Attis all sound convincingly like the story of Jesus, even down to the virgin birth and wine representing blood. Could be coincidence, but Flemming and a host of talking heads disagree. Robert M. Price (known to legions of Cthulhu mythos fans as the king of Lovecraftian esoterica) argues that the stories are simply too similar to not have informed the Christ "mythology." Sam Harris, author of the intriguing End of Faith, claims that Christians should be held to the same rigid terms of debate as scientists are. But they aren't, religious truths are based on faith, not facts. Flemming even gets Barbara and David Mikkelson, founders of snopes.com, in on the game.
Flemming moves from the historical facts against the existence of Jesus into the current trends of fundamentalism and winds up back at his alma mater, Village Christian Schools. Flemming, we learn, was himself a fundamentalist Christian. Now, an angry, wayward sheep, he turns against the flock and has a showdown with his former principal to close out the film.
At little more than an hour long, The God Who Wasn't There is awfully short to truly encompass all the points Flemming seeks to compellingly argue. But that's not the only problem with the picture. The film reeks of Michael Moore (and I'm not talking about the underside of Moore's baseball cap), it is a self-referential slice of post-modern documentary filmmaking. Flemming is as guilty as anyone of crossing over into sheer propaganda. He's got all these interesting facts to tell us about, all these fascinating historians and scientists, but he rarely lets them do the talking. Instead, he drones on like a contributor to "This American Life." The tone here is so ironic it's painful, so hip it's almost passé. (Though Flemming's utilization of old film clips (1952 Living Bible miniseries clips intertwined with La Vie et al Passion de Jesus Christ, a 1905 silent film, to tell the story of Christ's life is quite engaging and well realized.)
Flemming loses points almost immediately by opening the film with some really lame comparisons. He tries to juxtapose good Christians with bad "Christians" (like Manson, who called himself "Jesus Christ") but it's just juvenile. What about the Crusades? What about witch hunts? Pogroms? Come on, man!
Overall, The God Who Wasn't There is entertaining and it gets points for being gutsy and inventive but the truth is: none of this matters.
You can argue all these "facts" until you're blue in the face but there is one truth about religion that Flemming seems to overlook: the facts don't matter. When it comes to faith, it's all about faith. Christians don't believe in the power of Jesus because they read a fact-filled book about him, they believe in the power of Jesus because they feel it. That's conviction, bub.
Robert M. Price, a pastor and practicing Christian, sums it all up perfectly when he tells us that he still goes to church and loves the liturgy. For him, it doesn't really matter that Jesus may be an archetypal hero or that the story of his death and resurrection is apocryphal. For Price, Christianity as mythology still retains a potency, a revelatory power, that goes beyond facts or dogma.
Brian Flemming is currently hard at work on a thriller called The Beast, to be released 6-6-06. It follows along the same trajectory as The God Who Wasn't There, a girl discovers that Christ never existed, and I'll bet that will be more effective then this film. Why? Look at The Da Vinci Code. Fact is, people like their shocking revelations sweetened with a lot of fictional sugar. They like to fool around with truth (that old rascal with bad teeth from the wrong side of town) without losing their virginity. Funny that.