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Review: The God Who Wasn’t There

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Simultaneously available in limited release in theaters and on DVD, The God Who Wasn’t There is Brian Flemming’s attempt to prove that Christianity is predicated on a man/god who never existed. It is a thought-provoking and highly visual exercise. Ultimately, though, it falls short of its goal.

Flemming is a former fundamentalist Christian who, for reasons the film does not explain, came to the conclusion that the story of Jesus is not a historical one. To the contrary, he believes it doubtful Jesus ever existed. In fact, he believes Christians, particularly fundamentalists, are as wrong in their belief in Jesus as the church’s former insistence that the Sun revolved around the Earth.

Flemming asks attendees outside a Billy Graham event who Jesus is and how Christianity spread. He then tells the familiar story of the life of Jesus using excerpts from a 1905 French silent film and a 1952 US film miniseries. He then gets to the heart of his project: he takes a look at the historical record and compares major elements of Jesus doctrine with prior mythological gods and characters. This examination is interspersed with interviews with historians, folklorists and Sam Harris, the author of the best-selling The End of Faith. Flemming raises some interesting and provocative points. The problem is he breezes through some of the comparisons to mythology and abandons this exploration to take another tack.

Rather than further examining the historical record, the film devolves into a look at Christianity’s focus on “blood sacrifice” (relying on excerpts from Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ that are used without permission) and the single-mindedness of fundamentalists. The latter comes via some of the views of those who believe in the rapture and an interview with the superintendent of the fundamentalist school Flemming attended. That interview, however, comes off more as an effort of a former student to challenge a past authority figure than one which addresses the question of a historical Jesus and is a somewhat inapt way of concluding the film.

With the film clocking it at just over a hour in length, the DVD has the advantage of also providing additional footage of the interviews with those who appear in the film. There are commentary tracks by noted atheists and an author who believes Jesus was a myth and a slide show which, if played on a computer, provides links to web sites relevant to the topics.

Flemming’s film touches on issues that, while controversial and unpopular, are worthy of exploration and discussion. Unfortunately, those issues become lost and lose force in what eventually seems to come off as a surface exploration of a grudge against Flemming’s fundamentalist schooling. The premise of the film title would have been brought into clearer focus had Flemming spent more time exploring the historical record and comparative mythology. Yet despite these failings, The God Who Wasn’t There is still a thought-provoking film.

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About Tim Gebhart

Tim Gebhart is a book addict living in Sioux Falls, S.D., where he practices law to provide shelter for his family, books and dogs.
  • http://www.atheists.org Laure

    Flemming is an atheist. He no doubt escaped from religion after critical examination. His film is fabulous and covers many many interesting issues. The evidence that Jesus never really exist is absolutely compelling, and only controversial because few people have so far discussed it. That will change with time, and Flemming will definitely help. Flemming does well to question his catholic school principal because the school has done – and still does – damage to the students. Brainwashing them into thinking that the absurd religious stories are actually true, and worse, instilling fear of grisly torturous death if they don’t comply ? That’s abuse ! Good for Flemming for addressing the problem in such a straightforward manner.

    Everyone should see this film. The commentaries and extended interviews are particularly valuable.

  • http://paperfrigate.blogspot.com DrPat

    Tim doesn’t seem to dismiss Flemming’s work because of its irreligious nature, Laure, but rather because of its flaws: Flemming raises some interesting and provocative points. The problem is he breezes through some of the comparisons to mythology and abandons this exploration to take another tack.

    I find it ironic that he is willing to concede that Flemming may have a point to prove, while still claiming he has not proven it.

    Tim, I can tell you (from personal experience) that more than one potential “rational convert” to Christianity has been chased away by the focus on the gory passion of Christ, and the general ignorance or side-lining of His message of love and tolerance.

  • http://prairieprogressive.blogspot.com Tim Gebhart

    Laure: The evidence may be compelling but Flemming does not do a compelling job of presenting it. I wish he had spent more time detailing his own “critical examination” or the “absolutely compelling” evidence because I don’t think he’s going to convince Christians it is brainwashing until he first convinces them the stories are, in fact, myth.

    DrPat: I don’t know that my position is ironic. I am familiar with and have read some of the material upon which Flemming relies and that is what makes me think there is a point to be proved. At the same time, I believe he devoted too little time to that evidence and, thus, failed to prove the point.

  • http://yah7weh JLM

    Flemming fails to address the subject he raises because he is more interested in his agenda of settling the score with his fundamental up bringing than actually staying the task. His judgment is clouded because of his rejection of authority. He seems to have a disdain for authority at every level. This issue with authority overshadows his subject matter leading him away from his intent.

    There are Christians who yell loud and close the ears to avoid being challenged by good discussion. They seem to be afraid of allowing their faith to be tested and tried. If your faith cannot be tried and tested, if you will not allow for criticism. How will you know the strengthen of your faith? Or the power of what you believe? Most things can be rationally reasoned and discussed, although in the end, there is a measure of faith within every belief system. Everyone has a belief system. What holds your measure of faith?

  • Ross

    The movie is indeed too short to make the entire case, but there is a wealth of information on the DVD–extra interviews with all the people in the film, and two audio-only commentary tracks. In Kansas City at a screening, Flemming recently said he intended for the movie to be experienced within the context of the DVD.

    And if you put the DVD in your computer, an internet-connected slide show will take you to more sites than you can shake a stick at.

    It’s true that the movie itself is more entertainment than scholarship, but it’s not like Flemming didn’t do the work–support for his claims is all right there on the DVD.

  • Mary

    Ross, you’re right. This documentary is far too short, but in my opinion it’s not only because it is too short to make the entire case to refute the existence of Jesus Christ. The list goes on and on for that. That would have to be a mini-series.

    I’ve got a copy of the DVD and attended a screening. I see something new each time. The interviews bring questions to mind and always provoke conversation. The argument for the story of Jesus being myth is persuasive and it’s well told in this film.

    The movie also illustrates how Christians do not seem to have much basis for their faith. The interviews with Christians show just how little they understand what they believe in. They apparently believe because they were instructed to believe. Not because they’ve given the issue serious thought, looked at the facts and come to a conclusion.

    I was lucky enough to attend a screening that Brian Flemming and several other people held a discussion forum afterward. It was really interesting to hear how rational Mr. Flemming’s comments were compared to those offered by the Christians on the panel. I think a lot of non-atheists left that night questioning their belief system.

    It’s also too short because it’s just plain entertaining with lots of churkles and you hate for it to end.