Reductio ad Shaquillum

I can conceive of a universe which is greater than all possible universes. If there is a maximally perfect being (God), then he would necessarily have made the greatest conceivable universe.

A universe which has Shaquille O’Neal movies in it is necessarily less great than a universe which does not have Shaquille O’Neal movies in it.

Since this universe has Shaquille O’Neal movies in it, I can conceive of a greater universe. Therefore, since this is not the greatest conceivable universe, it must not have been created by a maximally perfect god.

–The Kazaam Cosmological Argument*.

*Okay, all right, it’s an Ontological Argument, so the name’s not accurate, but the pun wouldn’t work otherwise. I tried the other way, but wrote myself into a corner somewhere after “Shaquille O’Neal’s acting career began to exist.” Now, given the quick annihilation of said career, it’s possible that it was just a virtual career, part of normal career vacuum fluctuations…

Case Closed

The DVD case.I’ve never read one of Lee Strobel’s books all the way through. I feel, though, like I’ve read the introduction to all of them, mainly because every book he writes seems to begin with the same story about how he used to be a horrible atheist who believed in science and laughed at people’s pain. Then, naturally, his wife joined a conservative church and he ended up converting and suddenly discovering morality and compassion.

And, apparently, losing any integrity or comprehension for journalistic and legal practices that he may have been taught when training to become a legal journalist.

But I’ve just started “The Case for Christ: The Movie.” And boy oh boy, is it everything that I expected. I’m more or less liveblogging the film, so excuse the disjointedness of the post.

The movie starts out with some sensible people; one acknowledges that Jesus probably lived, but doubted his divinity. One says that if Jesus came into his office and showed him the signs of the Stigmata, he’d start believing (a reasonable request, and one that Jesus has supposedly fulfilled before), and two more express doubt on the existence of an omnipotent god and the resurrection.

Then, following a title sequence that could have been taken from “The Bourne Trinity,” Strobel himself slides onto the screen. He and his wife alternate between reading the introduction to all his books (even choosing to use the same language) leading up to their trip to the Willow Creek megachurch, where Strobel got all his misconceptions cleared up, and realized how important all this stuff was if true. He decided that he was going to abuse his position as a Chicago Tribune reporter in order to interview scholars for his own personal quest. His quest, strangely enough, never led him to anyone who wasn’t already a fundamentalist Christian.

This is all done in the style of “An Inconvenient Truth.”

His first point is how he went about examining the evidence, starting with the Gospel account. In his own words: “Now obviously I didn’t accept the New Testament as being the inspired word of God. I certainly didn’t accept it as being inerrant. But what I had to accept it as being, which it undeniably is, is a set of ancient historical documents.”

He decided to go after the historians, the “expert witnesses,” who could tell him whether the New Testament was trustworthy. These historians include a Professor of Philosophy from Biola University, a Professor of New Testament from Bethel Seminary, a Professor of New Testament from Denver Seminary, a Professor of New Testament from a Divinity College, and a Bishop. Note that this list contains absolutely no historians, and absolutely no one who isn’t affiliated either directly with a church, or with a very religious college.

Strobel claims that he learned as a legal journalist the importance of eyewitness accounts. Apparently he didn’t learn the unreliability of eyewitness accounts, the problem with biased accounts, the need for corroborating forensic evidence or corroboration of eyewitness accounts, and the importance of selecting expert witnesses who aren’t clearly biased and who aren’t possibly suffering from a conflict of interest, and especially the meaning of “hearsay.” It’s a good thing he doesn’t have a Masters degree in Studies of Law.

The scholars go on to basically state that the Gospels are accurate, including their attribution. They claim that the gospels were all written “in the first century” and that eyewitnesses were still around for most of their composition. Assuming the information on Wikipedia is accurate, the life expectancy for Classical Rome was 28; according to the timeline in Strobel’s film, the Gospels were composed between 60 and 95 C.E. Assuming that Jesus’s apostles were of the same approximate age as he’s said to have been, they’d all be fairly well over the average life expectancy for the time back in 33 C.E., just how many are going to still be alive thirty years later? Sixty?

Did you know that oral tradition can be passed on without changing a thing? Someone ought to tell “The Iliad.”

Most of the apparent contradictions in the Bible are easily resolved by adding in opinions that aren’t textually or historically supported. But you already knew that.

“…the Bible of the Greeks, Homer’s ‘Iliad.'” Yeahbuhwha?

We have lots of copies of the New Testament, and far fewer copies of “The Iliad.” No mention is made of how close those copies of the NT match one another. At least, not here, but Bart Ehrman does make repeated mention of that startling fact. More differences than words in the NT? You don’t say.

Strobel then makes a startling concession: he’s going to let the opposition voice their views on the issue. Well, I take back the nasty things I said about this movie being one-sided; I imagine they’ll have Bart Ehrman and Bob Price, or at least Bruce Metzger, on to talk about the problems with Biblical transmission and the historicity of Jesus.
Wait, his “other side” is the Gnostic Gospels? Well, fuck.

No, Lee, the Gnostic Gospels don’t represent the mainstream of academic scholarship, you boob. They represent the alternate churches who lost the doctrine wars. Or maybe you’re asking if the books on the Gnostic Gospels represent mainstream academia, in which case, how? Mainstream academia certainly believes that the Gnostic Gospels exist, and that they’re interesting stories from the early churches. For someone who’s suddenly so concerned about what mainstream academics think, it’s odd that your film so far has featured only people from conservative Christian colleges and backgrounds, and not anyone involved with the Jesus Seminar or other “mainstream academic” groups.

Apparently, allowing the “other side” to speak, even when the “other side” agrees with the first side on all the broad points, means “allowing the people who represent the first side to talk about what the ‘other side’ says, and then dismiss it outright, without providing any supportive evidence for any of their claims.”

Lee sought out more scholars to tell him who Jesus really was. We’ve got a Professor of Jewish Studies from Moody Bible Institute and a Professor of New Testament Interpretation from Asbury Seminary. No historians or non-Christians in sight. I know I’m opening up myself to criticism, that I wouldn’t make the same complaints about a film with which I agreed. And to some degree, that’s right. I agree largely with “The God Who Wasn’t There,” and I’ve never written a screed about how Brian Flemming only interviewed people who agreed with his point (excepting, of course, the Rapture Letters guy and the principal of his old school). The differences, as I see them, are:

  • Flemming was a legitimate Christian, who legitimately knew the Bible and believed it before his apostasy; Strobel was, at best, a default atheist who had never considered the counter-arguments to common apologetics.
  • Flemming’s experts provide citations and specific justifications for their claims; Strobel’s experts make proclamations and broad dismissals with no apparent reason.
  • Flemming never presents himself as providing all sides of the argument, or even as providing a certain answer; Strobel repeatedly compares this to a legal proceeding, with the evidence from multiple sides being presented, the “scales tipping,” and whatnot.

And, ultimately, I disagree with Flemming’s conclusion that Jesus probably didn’t exist. To that end, I’ve further explored the evidence, and I’ve expanded my knowledge based on what was claimed in the film. The scholars in Strobel’s film are basically saying that the Bible is completely trustworthy, and that we should believe any agreeing source on its face.

“‘Cause no human being can rule forever, unless he’s a forever person in some kind of way.”

Strobel presents the perfect example of a bad question. The Gospels say that Jesus performed miracles, so Lee “had to know, is there evidence that these miracles are a result of his divine nature?” Um, I would think a better question to start with would be “do we have good reason to believe he performed these miracles?” You may have established to your satisfaction that the Biblical account of Jesus is largely accurate, but there’s a step from “can we believe that these things were written according to eyewitness accounts” and “can we believe every claim and story made within the texts.”

The Talmud sometimes describes Jesus as a magician, which demonstrates that there’s a historical acknowledgement of his abilities. This doesn’t address the earlier (apt) point that Jesus’s opponents would claim that his abilities aren’t derived from God. The Pharaoh’s men could turn staves into snakes just as well as Aaron could. The scholars claim that Jesus doesn’t need to use incantations and potions like other magicians of the day. I don’t see any mention of potions or incantations in Exodus 7.

Isn’t it amazing that Jesus is said to have fulfilled the messianic prophecies earlier in the Bible? Only slightly more amazing than Harry Potter fulfilling prophecies from The Sorcerer’s Stone in The Deathly Hallows.

‘Fulfilling prophecies is like fingerprint evidence in a court of law. (paraphrased)’ Um…no. No it isn’t. Especially not when the people writing about the fulfillment were aware of the original prophecies, especially not when there’s no contemporary corroboration of those prophecies being fulfilled.

“Anyone who enters Jerusalem riding on a donkey, in obvious fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9, is saying ‘yes, I am the Messiah.'” Awesome; someone get me some airplane fare and donkey rental funds, I’m going to go prove that I’m the King of Kings.

The chances of one person fulfilling 48 messianic prophecies is mathematically almost impossible. Now, how much more likely is it that someone will fulfill 48 prophecies if he’s read and memorized them? How much more likely is it if we only have hearsay claiming that he fulfilled said prophecies? Naturally, no mention is made of the prophecies he failed to fulfill, like reigning from sea to sea and leading an army of Judah against the people of Greece, from Zechariah 9:10-13. What a difference a verse makes.

“Jesus is the climax of that movement. He is the climax of salvation history, the one who brings it off to fulfillment. You’re reading Old Testament, it’s building, building, building. Jesus arrives on the scene and he is the fulfillment.” Do I need to pull out the “coming quickly” bits again? Why do I get the feeling that some of these scholars’ Bibles have pages that stick together?

Lee didn’t want there to be a God, because he didn’t want to be held accountable for his life. Why is it that the only “atheists” I ever see saying that their lack of belief was due to a desire to live however they want, are the ones who have since converted to Christianity and are trying to convince you to do the same? Why don’t I see actual current nonbelievers running around saying “isn’t it great that we can do whatever we want and suffer no consequences?” Is it because current atheists recognize that society will hold us accountable for our lives, even though God won’t?

No, Lee, you weren’t a skeptic. Maybe I’m risking a “no true Scotsman” fallacy here, but your methodology is not a skeptical one. Skeptics examine all the evidence, not just the statements of biased experts.

We then move on to arguments for the Resurrection, including experts like William Lane Craig (wondered when he’d show up), someone from Liberty University, and the Director of Apologetics of the Southern Baptist Convention. At this point, I don’t care that there aren’t any historians or anything, because what proof are you going to look at for the Resurrection? Certainly not forensic evidence.

Um…if you, as a Roman law enforcer, are facing fatal punishment if you let a prisoner of war or rebel leader go, then why did Pilate repeatedly offer to let Jesus go? Why was he so hesitant to kill Jesus if he was facing greater punishment for doing so?

Apparently if a story uses real people and real places, then it can’t be made up. Did you know that Abraham Lincoln fought two-headed robot tigers on the moon? It’s true.

Is it true that hundreds of people really saw him alive after the Resurrection? I guess, if we believe Paul. Of course, Paul’s not entirely clear on whether or not he was blind when he met Jesus, and whether or not Jesus was a vision or a voice. He’s also not too clear on the people who saw the risen Jesus, since he says he appeared to the Twelve, even though Judas was dead by that time.

The fact that people died for their beliefs, and believe things fervently, is not evidence that those beliefs are true.

So, in a little over an hour, we’ve had no extra-Biblical contemporary evidence for the existence of Jesus, a few contested mentions from Josephus and Tacitus, and a bunch of hearsay that we’re just told, without justification, must be true. We learn that a person who has no strong convictions about religion and who has never really explored the question of God’s existence, who spends almost two years with a wife who is actively working to convert him while he consults exclusively conservative Christian sources for the evidence of Christ’s existence and claims to divinity, may in fact undergo a conversion to Christianity. Surprising, no?

I have to say, I’m a little disappointed in this film. I didn’t by any stretch of the imagination, expect it to be fair or balanced; I didn’t honestly expect it to examine all the evidence and include sources from multiple sides, but I was really hoping he’d bring in the psychologist he consulted in his book, who analyzed the Gospel accounts to come to the conclusion that Jesus wasn’t crazy. That was hilarious when I read it, and I really wanted to see it on the small screen. I guess they’re saving that for the sequel.

Books from the Theology Class I’ll Never Teach

Exegesis: How the Mafia Ordered the Crucifixion

Transubstantiation: More than Grapes and Rye

His & Hermeneutics

Illiturgy: The Trials of Uneducated Priests

In which Richard Dawkins tells me why I enjoy theology

So, as you may be able to tell, my Interwebs are functioning again. Turns out all I had to do was take the cable running from the Internet jack in the wall, unplug it from the “Internet” jack in the back of my router, and plug it into the adjacent, but completely wrong jack. I don’t know why it works, but I’m not planning to question it too deeply. At least, not for a few days. I’ll just chalk it up to the mysteries of the tubes.

Anyway, you may have noticed that I updated that little thingy in the sidebar that tells you Net-stalkers what I’m doing with my free time. It’s a little disingenuous, I know, since I’m watching more than just Scrubs (but Law & Order: SVU kind of goes without saying) and listening to more than just Bad Religion, but my current book list is relatively complete. I started reading The Color of Magic because I wanted something I could read openly at home. You might vaguely recall that I was working on a novel about the Armageddon. Well, I’ve picked it up again (after way, way too long) and I decided I should get some more background in the Bible. I’ve tried in the past, but I’ve been hindered by a number of things. The last time I dove in I was working with the King James Version, and I decided to start at the beginning and work my way through. Several pages into the begats, and even after filling a notebook page with a family tree to try to keep myself interested, I gave up. The combination of the archaic (but pretty) language and ancient genealogy led to a critical mass of sheer boredom.
But Misquoting Jesus gave me some more background with which to work, and some advice for picking a good translation. Ehrman recommended the New Revised Standard Version, so I headed off to Borders and picked one up (along with Dawkins’ Unweaving the Rainbow, for some balance). It’s a much easier read, and while I miss the pretty language, I like knowing that it’s a quality translation of the best available texts. So I’m going to work my way through the Gospels (in roughly chronological order, if I can find out when Matthew, Luke, and John were written with regard to each other), Revelation, the Book of James, Ecclesiastes, and probably Psalms.

And, of course, I’ve started into The God Delusion, which I’m finding very entertaining. I’m hoping to have it finished in the next couple of weeks, and I plan on writing about it whenever something strikes me as interesting. Case in point, this post. See, early on, Dawkins makes an off-hand, rather flippant remark about theology that I found to be quite revealing. But to get to that, we have to make a quick stop in Tangentville, by way of the Train o’ Thought Express.

When I was exposed to the Intertubes oh so long ago, one of the first things I did was to join up with several mailing lists and newsgroups devoted to a variety of cartoon series from the ’80s. I was pretty active on these lists, with a penchant for being able to explain inconsistencies in continuity or to develop large and complicated theories regarding how certain concepts function. I wrote pages, with cited sources, arguing that “Grayskull” is properly spelled with an “a,” not an “e,” and that such a distinction is important. I wrote lengthy essays explaining how Queen Marlena’s spaceship could have two different names (one was the mission, the other her specific module), or whether He-Man could best Superman in battle. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve got at least one copy of that latter argument saved to a file somewhere on my hard drive. I wrote a huge essay detailing the theory and practice behind “subspace,” a concept invented by Transformers fans to explain how their favorite robots change sizes and where their weapons and trailers and other various parts go when they transform. I could tell you how a 20-foot-tall robot like Soundwave could turn into an average-sized 1980s boombox, or how a 7-foot-tall robot like Cosmos could become a spacecraft large enough to accommodate a full-grown human with lots of room to spare.

It was on these forums, in these minutest of topics, that I honed and developed my debate skills, specifically my tendency to do detailed, point-by-point rebuttals of others’ arguments. And these forums helped me develop my ability to draw connections between various data points, explain how seemingly contradictory elements might fit together, and familiarized me with the concept of canon. Hell, I could still go on for hours about He-Man’s canons, how I’m something of a pluralist in that regard (I recognize multiple equally-valid but separate canons: FILMation cartoon, MYP cartoon, Marvel Minicomic, Marvel Comic, DC Comic, DC Minicomic, Movie, etc.) and how absurd I think it is to try to synthesize all the canons into one coherent whole. There are inconsistencies within any individual universe, but those are relatively minor; trying to reconcile Movie Skeletor and MYP Cartoon Skeletor would be darn near impossible.

And I could even regale you with an explanation of my own personal canon, one which I recognize is not valid by the standards with which I’d judge “official” canons, but which incorporates all the elements I feel are good and accurate representations of the He-Man universe. I wouldn’t expect anyone else to accept my personal canon, and I certainly couldn’t justify it rationally, it’s just a matter of my own preference.

But it wasn’t just He-Man and Transformers. At the same time, I was involved in a Star Wars RPG, which prompted me to research the intricate details of the Holy Trilogy (which at the time, was still just a trilogy) and to understand how all the characters, important or unimportant, came together and behaved and whatnot. My favorite books at the time were compilations of short stories about the various Bounty Hunters or the patrons of Mos Eisley cantina, going into excruciating detail about the personal lives of characters who only existed for a few brief moments on screen.
And I’ve always considered myself a Trekker (far cooler than a Trekkie). I followed TNG pretty closely as a kid, and I even watched Voyager (though various factors prevented me from seeing much of DS9 until the later seasons. It’s okay; I prefer bald-and-bearded Sisko). And I remember being incensed when I saw the episode that explained how Seven of Nine got assimilated, because it didn’t fit with prior continuity regarding how far out Voyager was and when the Federation first encountered the Borg. Clearly, there was an irreconcilable contradiction.

You see? I haven’t talked about this stuff in years, and it still comes back easier than riding a bike (as the scabs on my arms can attest). Some people just have a knack for continuity issues, and I’m most certainly one of those people. But back to the point, Dr. Dawkins said something which stuck out to me, in light of my prior experience:

The other thing I cannot help remarking upon is the overweening confidence with which the religious assert minute details for which they neither have, nor could have, any evidence. (p. 34)

Upon reading this, I made one of those connections that years of nerd quibbling has so adequately prepared me for: theology is fanboy debate writ large. Or perhaps not even really writ large, so much as writ legitimate.

The similarities are really quite striking, which I imagine owes much to the scope of the debate. Dawkins isn’t quite right when he says that the debaters here have no evidence; it’s true that they have nothing that we would really call “evidence,” but that’s because they have a different standard for what qualifies as evidence. Whether you’re talking about the Bible or He-Man or “Star Trek,” the vast majority of the “evidence” is textual (used here in the broader literary sense of “any work in media”). The canonical texts become the primary source of evidence. It’s not difficult to see why this is the case: the texts are the only source which testifies to the existence of the subject matter. When you’re trying to explain how Warp Drive works, your primary source will have to be the “Star Trek” series, because there’s no other source which would describe the functioning of a Warp Drive. Similarly, when you’re trying to explain where the water for the global flood came from, your primary source will have to be the Bible, because there’s no other source which testifies to the existence of a global flood.

Other evidence may come into play; non-canonical texts may be consulted (such as the Star Trek novels or the Gnostic Gospels), though their inclusion may be grounds for dismissing the argument. Secondary texts might be used, such as the technical guides and “history of” or “science of” books that try to explain things within the context of the canon, or theological texts that promote specific arguments. Science and real-world observation might come into play as well, the sorts of things that Dawkins and I would consider “evidence,” but only insofar as it serves the primary sources, the canonical texts. Nevermind that warp drive is a technical impossibility according to General Relativity; we start with the a priori assumption that everything in the canon is true, and we then pick and choose what science or evidence will support it. Anything which doesn’t fit, we chalk up to errors in our current understanding of the world, or futuristic science that we don’t yet understand, or divine mystery.

So, while a scientist going into this would start with questions like “does the warp drive work?” or “was there a global flood?” a fanboy or theologian has already covered those topics in the initial assumptions. Of course warp drive works, they use it in every episode! Of course there was a global flood, it says so right there in Genesis! Given that the canon is true, how do the details work out?

I’ve tossed the word “canon” about a bit here, because it’s a matter of concern for both fanboys and theologians. In nearly all cases, there’s a variety of available texts, some of which are considered “official,” and some not. How that is decided really differs from fandom to fandom, and sometimes, from person to person. I discussed one option above, a pluralistic sort of canon, where various sets of texts are considered canonical among themselves, and those sets are roughly equal to one another. I’m not sure whether or not that really has an analog in theology, except for those pluralistic sorts who claim that there is only one God, but many manifestations, such that Christians and Buddhists and Hindus all really believe in the same thing, but in different ways.

There are many different options, however. Some fandom communities have an absolute authority; take “Star Wars” for instance. The position of Lucasarts was, for many years, that despite the wide variety of books and TV shows and supplemental materials, the only true “canon” was the Trilogy, and that Pope George I reserved the right to contradict any of the other texts with his future films (mainly because he didn’t have the time to read the other books). Eventually Shadows of the Empire became canonical, and I understand that the New Jedi Order books are considered “official” for the time being.
But ever since the beginning, there have been alternate canons. While the first book and first film are reasonably similar, there are some significant inconsistencies between the two (such as whether Luke was “Red Five” or “Blue Five”), giving rise to Orthodox and Novel Reformist fandoms. After the first movie, there was a book called Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, the first Star Wars spin-off novel, in which Luke and Leia made out and Darth Vader was killed. Naturally, the events of this book were contradicted in the following two films, and so it has been largely considered apocryphal since around 1980. But I know there are fans out there who consider it continuity, either by rejecting everything that came after, or by explaining away the inconsistencies. And then there are as many “canons” as there are stories, where some fans reject the authority of Pope George and the alterations that came with Trilogy II, some embrace texts like Heir to the Empire, and some reason that if the “New Jedi Order” books are considered canonical, then several key books leading up to them, like the Thrawn Trilogy, the “Jedi Academy” Trilogy, and The Courtship of Princess Leia must also be canonical, as they explain events that occur in the NJO.

And then there’s the matter of extra-textual consensus: things that are considered by the majority of fans to exist, even though they are not represented in the text. I mentioned “Subspace” above, as a Transformers example. Fans invented the concept and generally agreed on its existence based on its ability to explain apparent contradictions or inconsistencies or observations in the official texts. Star Trek fans may discuss with you the rules of Three-Dimensional Chess, which are never mentioned in the show, but which we reason must exist since they play the game. Or they might tell you that the scale of Warp Speed was changed between the Original Series and TNG, in order to explain why Kirk could regularly go over Warp 10, but later series treated it like an upper bound. They might tell you that Scotty suffered some signal degradation over the decades he was locked in a transporter loop, which is why he didn’t remember seeing Captain Kirk’s apparent death on the Enterprise-B. Christianity has this sort of thing in spades, whether it’s the existence and composition of the Trinity (never mentioned in the Bible, and only alluded to in a disputed passage), the existence of the Rapture (never mentioned by name), or the concepts of Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of Mary. Fans explain away inconsistencies or holes in the text, and those explanations may gain wide acceptance. Naturally, there will be some who reject those explanations (at least one of the post-Generations Star Trek novels contradicts the explanation about Scotty, for instance) and some who accept them as equal to the text.

Squabbles over canon, text as primary evidence with all other evidence subordinate to the text, lengthy and heated arguments over minute and trivial details, and the widespread acceptance and legitimization of adherent-created explanations. It seems to me that the attitude, the methodology, and the near-complete uselessness are completely consistent between the two traditions. Theologians are simply Fanboys whose chosen area of geekiness is the Bible. I’m not meaning to denigrate them, necessarily. After all, I’m a Fanboy as much as anyone, and I understand deeply the entertainment value of pursuits like theology. Even now, I could launch into a deep and overly complicated explanation of how Superman’s powers work, within the context of his particular universe, or why I reject the Midichlorians, even though I recognize that all of Star Wars is fictional. These arguments and points may be petty and completely lacking in utility, but they are enjoyable, at least to some degree. Whether that enjoyment value overrides their divisiveness and tendency to incite anger is another argument entirely.

Ultimately, it seems to me that the only difference between the two traditions is one of prestige. When a fanboys think that these arguments and distinctions are of vital importance and devote large portions of their lives to exploring them, we consider it sad. When theologians think that these arguments and distinctions are of vital importance and devote large portions of their lives to exploring them, we give them degrees.