Monday, April 9, 2012

CNN's Easter-Bashing Goes Laughably Awry

CNN's annual “Bash Christianity on Easter” story is crazier than usual.

 This year, they ran an article entitled The Jesus Debate: Man vs. Myth. On one side were John Dominic Crossan and Bart Ehrman, who deny the physical Resurrection. On the other side, are folks like (self-proclaimed “spiritual pioneer”) Timothy Freke who go even further, and deny that Jesus even existed.  They don't just deny Easter, they deny Christmas.

Raphael, The Resurrection of Christ (1502)
That's right: the Resurrection-denying side was the closest thing to orthodoxy in this debate, at least for the first forty paragraphs (literally).  Around the forty-seventh paragraph, they finally quote Prof. Craig A. Evans, who explains that Jesus of Nazareth existed.  He is literally the first and only Christian source quoted.  And the only thing they use Evans for is to provide some quotes saying that Jesus exists -- you wouldn't be able to tell from the context whether or not Evans even believes in the Resurrection.

So CNN's idea of a balanced article commemorating Easter is to depict the debate as between those who deny the Resurrection and those who deny the entirety of the Gospels.  It's hard to know what to describe this as, if not flagrant bias, particularly when it's coupled by this sort of editorializing:
Those who argue against the existence of Jesus say they aren’t trying to destroy people’s faith.

“I don’t have any desire to upset people,” says Freke. “I do have a passion for the truth. … I don’t think rational people in the 20th century can go down a road just on blind faith.”

Yet Easter was never just about rationale.

The Easter stories about the resurrection are strange
: Disciples don’t recognize Jesus as they meet him on the road; he tells someone not to touch him; he eats fish in another.
Those last two paragraphs are apparently from the reporter (CNN writer John Blake) himself, explaining that since we believers don't really care about things like reason, we can still cling to our faith.

I. What Does the Scholarship Actually Say?

Lorenzo Costa, The Holy Family (1490)
I could sort of understand this false balance if the scholarly debate really was split between those two Easter-denying camps.  But that's not the case at all.  Professor Evans describes the state of academia in his book, Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels (p. 220):
Not long ago Tom Harpur's The Pagan Christ created a sensation by presenting in new form the odd notion that Jesus did not exist. I say odd because almost no serious academic - of any ideological, religious or nonreligious stripe - doubts that Jesus of Nazareth actually lived some time in the first century and was crucified by order of Pontious Pilate, governor of Judea.  The evidence for the existence of Jesus - literary, archaeological and circumstantial - is overwhelming.
The agnostic Bart Ehrman is even more blunt.  CNN reports his reaction this way:
Most Jesus deniers are Internet kooks, says Bart D. Ehrman, a New Testament scholar who recently released a book devoted to the question called “Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth.”
That is, almost every scholar acknowledges that Jesus existed, and the debate is over whether or not He rose from the dead.  But CNN wants to recast it so that every scholar accepts that Jesus didn't rise from the dead, and the debate is over whether or not He even existed.

They go digging through the dregs pretty far to find someone who will say this, too.  In a  follow-up post, they described the article as a “story on a small cadre of authors challenging the existence of Jesus Christ.”  So CNN sought out, not “scholars,” not “experts,” but “a small cadre” of authors,” just to find somebody who would deny that Jesus existed.

II. Does an Ancient Amulet Disprove Christianity?


Don't get me wrong: plenty of folks outside of academia have had invaluable insights into the Gospels.  But shouldn't we expect to find some sort of expertise from the folks that CNN dug up?

Instead, we get another regurgitation of the long-discredited idea that the Gospels are just a retelling of pagan myths.  No one who has actually read the Gospels and the pagan myths in question could seriously claim this, and I've previously criticized the sloppy methodology behind these claims, showing that they could just as easily “prove” that Gandhi didn't exist.

But let's look at the specific “evidence” that gets trotted out for the CNN piece.  The article opens by talking about how Freke decided Jesus didn't exist after reading an old book with a picture of “a drawing of a third-century amulet” of “Osiris-Dionysus, a pagan god in ancient Mediterranean culture” on a cross in a very Christological manner.

The drawing that allegedly
disproves Christianity.
It's hard to know where to begin.  First of all, the drawing in question (depicted on the left) doesn't claim to be of “Osiris-Dionysus” but of “Orpheus” and Dionysus (also known as Bacchus).  This mistake is embarrassing, since the drawing has ΟΡΦΕΟΣ ΒΑΚΚΙΚΟΣ (Orpheus Bacchus) written on it.

And “Osiris-Dionysus” wasn't “a pagan god in ancient Mediterranean culture.”  These were two separate gods from different cultures. Osiris was the Egyptian god of the dead, and Dionysus was the Greek god of wine. And Orpheus wasn't another name for Osiris or Dionysus, or any other god, for that matter.  Rather, it's the name of a mythical Greek prophet and storyteller.  In Greek mythology, Orpheus was killed by Dionysus.  So the idea that Osiris, Orpheus, and Dionysus are all one god is off to a ... rocky start, to say the least.

There's also the fact that the now-lost amulet was almost certainly a forgery. The German epigrapher Otto Kern, who initially promoted the amulet as authentic, recanted in the face of the evidence, a fact that Freke's coauthor Peter Gandy has acknowledged.  In Kern's words, the amulet “is almost certainly a fake.”  For example, the bent knees in the depiction of the Crucifixion is characteristic of later Medieval art, not art from late antiquity.  But since the only evidence of the amulet's existence is the line drawing, it's impossible to know for sure.

So let's overlook all of that for a moment.  Assume that the amulet was authentic, and that it actually did depict Dionysus (or Osiris, or Orpheus, or “Osiris-Dionysus”) in a very Christ-like pose.  What does this prove, exactly?  By Kerns' own telling, the amulet is supposed to be from the third century A.D.

Did time-travelling Christians steal this image to construct the story of Jesus?  Because the Crucifixion of Christ was a pretty central part of Christianity from the first century. You might as well point to Kanye West's obnoxious Rolling Stone cover as proof that the Gospels were based off of rap music.

Theophanes the Cretan,
Justin the Philosopher (1546)
Perhaps a more lucid conclusion from those facts would be that later Christological depictions of Messianic pretenders (from pagan gods to Kanye West) are modeled off of a very Christian understanding of what a Messiah looks like.  That is, even a pagan living in the Christianized West hears “Messiah” and thinks of Jesus, and it's natural that art should reflect this.

In fact, we know from St. Justin Martyr's writings (c. 180 A.D.) that the pagans didn't have crucified depictions of their gods:
But in no instance, not even in any of those called sons of Jupiter, did they imitate the being crucified; for it was not understood by them, all the things said of it having been put symbolically.
And he says this exactly one chapter after he lists Bacchus as one of the sons of Jupiter.  So the idea that Bacchus was depicted as crucified, prior to Christ, is directly contradicted by the only evidence that we have.

Let me emphasize something here: this amulet is at the heart of Freke's argument.  I didn't just choose Freke's stupidest argument.  Rather, this is how the CNN article opens, and Freke and Gandy acutally put a computer enhanced (read: “doctored”) version of the amulet drawing as the cover of their own book.

Given all of this, Freke's amulet argument is laughably weak.  It's probably fake, and even if it were real, it doesn't remotely prove what Freke and the others are claiming (and goes directly against uncontroverted second-century evidence).
Conclusion

As is hopefully clear, this was worse than a puff piece.  This was part of a recurring trend: that each year at Easter, CNN runs stories hostile to orthodox Christianity, and often doesn't bother checking even basic facts.

I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that CNN's article would be roughly equivalent to a mainstream news source deciding on the anniversary of V-E Day to run an article sympathetic to Holocaust deniers.  In both cases, we're dealing with conspiratorial nuts without regard for evidence.  And in both cases, it would be incredibly tactless for a paper to run that sort of frontal assault at that particular time.  But as BBC director-general Mark Thompson has admitted (and defended), it's common practice to treat Christianity much more harshly than religions like Judaism or Islam.

I'm not suggesting that Christianity (or any religion) be treated with kid gloves.  As Christians, we make truth claims, and I would love a spirited dialogue over the reliability of those claims.  But this trend of exploiting Christian religious holidays to spread bilious nonsense under the guise of critical scholarship is the opposite of the role that the media should be playing.

26 comments:

  1. Love that smug assumption of our fideism among those too intelligent to condescend to actually understand what they're disparaging. Wouldn't be Easter without it.

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  2. "I don’t think rational people in the 20th century can go down a road just on blind faith." - unless its blind faith in (probably forged) amulets. Priceless.

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  3. I actually liked the term bilious there at the end, thought it was a (and I know this is an oxymoron) terse finish with that diction :)

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  4. *not sure if that was confusing but by oxymoron I meant 'terse adjetive'

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  5. Thanks for reading this stuff so that we don't have to!!!

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  6. they also ran a headline on tv that asked - Tebow more popular than pope? laughable, yes

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    1. Father,

      Do you ever read GetReligion? If you've got the stomach for it, they show the media's consistent failure to understand (or even make a serious attempt to understand) anything related to religion. Religion is treated as (a) too private to talk about publicly, (b) stupid, (c) archaic, and/or(d) evil and repressive.

      A running theme in their commentary is that the people who write sports articles know much more about sports than the people who cover religion articles know about religion. It's a problem that the media takes the pope less seriously than Tebow.

      That said, it's inadvertently funny.

      I.X.,

      Joe

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  7. Not only didn't the pagans not have images of their gods being crucified, they didn't show ANYONE being crucified.

    From the vast number of manuscripts we have today from the ancient world of the New Testament, when compared to the number of manuscripts we have of other works that only date to the Middle Ages at the earliest --ALL copied by nameless Catholic Monks down the centuries, BTW. You're welcome, Classical Studies departments throughout the Western World, you have those works to read and analyze thanks to the Church! -- we can state with a reasonably degree of assurance the following:

    There there is a better chance that a man by the (Semitic) name of "Yeshua" walked around early-1st century modern-day Israel, and was crucified as an enemy of the Roman State around the year 30 AD (+/- about 5 or so years), than there is for a man by the name of "Socrates" who walked around 5th century BC Greece.

    Just try and argue that Socrates never existed, or the Buddha never existed, or Mohammed never existed, and see how much of a civil conversation you have with the opposition -- There are good arguments for the non-existance of all three of those historical figures floating around out there BTW.

    The only reason that John Dominic Crossan and Bart Ehrman are taken even remotely seriously is because they oppose the Church...

    Source:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_New_Testament_papyri

    (That list does not include the collection of other Christian writings such as handwritten personal letters that quote and reference New Testament writings as well.)

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  8. These guys want scientific proof of the existence and resurrection of Jesus Christ? Just study the Shroud of Turin--especially the latest scientific tests that have been done on it. Carbon 14 date? Phfffgh!! There are 150,000 other pieces of scientific evidence that the Shroud is what is claimed, and we're supposed to discount all of that because of one Carbon-14 test? BTW, scientists have already proven why the Carbon-14 test failed.

    There is a clear, and obvious movement against the Catholic Church that has been in existence for centuries and is only in the last 20 years become rabid. The persecution will rival that of the first centuries.

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  9. John Dominic Crossan is a former priest who married twice

    Consider the source.

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    1. That's my point: Crossan is a disaffected ex-priest who denies the physical Resurrection, and Ehrman is a hostile agnostic who wrote Misquoting Jesus. And these are the guys that are defending the existence of Christ.

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  10. Did you see the follow up piece: http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2012/04/08/your-take-comments-on-jesus-deniers?

    nice of them to pick the most thoughtful substantive critiques of their article for examples...

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    1. I did see that.  It's a lame and defensive tactic: run something offensive and intentionally provocative, and then use the most extreme of the blowback to make everyone else look outlandish.

      The most brazen example I've seen of this recently was after the Journal of Medical Ethics published an article defending “post-birth abortion”: that is, slaughtering babies after they're born.  When people were outraged, the editor of the JME, Julian Savulescu, used this to argue that the outraged people were what's wrong with society.  I'm not joking:

      “What is disturbing is not the arguments in this paper nor its publication in an ethics journal. It is the hostile, abusive, threatening responses that it has elicited. More than ever, proper academic discussion and freedom are under threat from fanatics opposed to the very values of a liberal society.
      [....]
      What the response to this article reveals, through the microscope of the web, is the deep disorder of the modern world. Not that people would give arguments in favour of infanticide, but the deep opposition that exists now to liberal values and fanatical opposition to any kind of reasoned engagement.”

      That's right.  The problem with the modern world, in Julian Savulescu's view, isn't that there are fanatics like Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva, who advocate killing newborn children.  Nor is it that once-respectable journals like the JME would give them a soapbox.  Rather, it's that people can't just calmly advocate murdering babies without getting a “hostile” response.  It's breath-taking.

      And ironically, for all Savulescu's talk about the need for “reasoned engagement,” he studiously avoids responding to (or even acknowledging) the innumerable legitimate criticisms raised in response, preferring instead to seek out combox trolls and low-hanging fruit.

      I feel the same way about CNN's response. This is fundamentally not serious, and entirely beneath an organization dedicated to news, or the handling of serious ideas.

      I.X.,

      Joe

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    2. Well yea. But I actually like the fact that they'd publish articles even that are antithetical to the zeitgeist. Whenever there is honest argument, Truth has the advantage. What we need to avoid is situations where jargon has replaced honest argument. Often our concern is no longer whether theories are true or false, but rather, whether an emotionally charged label can be attributed to them, as in "old fashioned," "useful," "progressive" or "open-minded." And, in a sense, that seems to be the nugget of truth in Savulescu's retort. Don't you think?

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    3. Latenter,

      I'm troubled by the idea of an “anything goes” approach to discourse – that any idea, even one that directly advocates murder, is acceptable to argue. This has never been the view taken by Western Civilization. Advocating certain things, like the death of specific individuals, is actually criminal (or else, Charles Manson shouldn't be in prison for the Tate-LaBianca murders). That's the whole point of the crime of “conspiracy.”

      But in addition to this, Savulescu's apparently just hiding behind the cloak of “reasoned engagement.” Like I said in my last comment, he dodges any actual debate, and just finds the most extreme comments to tsk and condemn... the very thing he's accusing the other side of. The reason he defends Giubilini and Minerva seems to be as much that he agrees with them than anything else. His Wikipedia entry notes that he's previously argued that stem cell research is okay, even if it can be proven that we're killing unborn children. So he's cut from the same fanatical cloth as Giubilini and Minerva.

      I suppose I don't see any coherent reason why “I think we should kill Mrs. Johnson's baby” should be criminal to express, while we should politely debate “I think we should kill all the babies.”

      Now, having said that, I agree that the general solution to speech is more speech, and that the Truth can always hold its own in the marketplace of ideas. But sometimes, the marketplace should respond to ideas by denouncing them as rotten and awful.

      I.X.,

      Joe

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    4. Perhaps. US law, as you know, would distinguish between what you say in the penultimate paragraph for 1A reasons. But this is probably b/c we are free speech fetishists in America. So I think you may be right.

      From a practical perspective, Catholics are getting forced out of debates by this kind of logic (e.g. trying saying you think homosexuality is unnatural and immoral) much more than they are keeping out others. So I think it may be best for us to take the stance that we want more open debate and wait on excluding heinous ideas until we have a society in which heinous ideas are mere outliers. A "if you want an honest debate, bring it; but enough already with the jargon" stance would seem to benefit Catholics even if we had to give up fights like the Savulescu one, it seems. What do you think?

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    5. In any event that is the argument, it seems to me, of letter #1 here. http://www.ccc-nl.org/mn/ScrewTape_Letter_1.pdf And I think it is a good one.

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    6. Latenter,

      The problem identified in letter # 1 of the Screwtape Letters is actually at the heart of my concern. In a sane society, if I could prove, “your argument would permit murder,” I would have won the argument. That is, because a sane society shares a common understanding that murder is an evil that is never to be permitted, there's a logical terminus that we can arrive at.

      But if we can't even agree on whether murder is or isn't okay (and that's not hyperbole: that's exactly what at issue here), then what good is our debating actually accomplishing? How does one “prove” murder to be bad to someone who finds it morally acceptable?

      At the least, I think it's worth making noise about the fact that, while opposition to gay marriage is increasingly outside the realm of acceptable discourse, the explicit endorsement of the murder of babies is creeping its way into polite society.

      So I'm not against an open debate; quite the contrary! But I think that one of the tools of an open debate is vocalizing rejection of certain arguments and premises. I think that St. Paul does exactly this in Romans 3:8. Rather than answer the argument that it's morally right to do evil, he just calls it damnable and moves on.

      So I would reject as false the idea that open debate requires treating all ideas as equally valid, or even equally worthy of debate. (To be clear, I'm not suggesting that we use civil law to outlaw the articulation of these ideas, just that we don't treat them as socially or intellectually acceptable... and certainly, don't give them prestigious soap boxes).

      I.X.,


      Joe

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    7. What do you see as the problem identified in the letter? On my reading it is evaluating arguments on some basis other than their truthfulness. Maybe for you too, but I'm not sure.

      In any event, what I think the debate is actually accomplishing is convincing the people who place personhood at viability or some other artbitrary point, to see the arbitrariness of this point. The authors may be a lost cause. But we can safely assume that the great majority of people do not want to see babies being murdered. The authors, therefore, are presenting a reductio against the pro-choice position in spite of themselves. But if we were just to keep this out of the realm of debate, these pro choicers would never be able to see the light.

      Consider Norman Podhoretz. He remained faithful to the pro-choice cause until he enountered friends at a cocktail party who were arguing in favor of the infanticide of handicapped newborns. When he expressed shock at their view, one of them replied, "well, you are in favor of legal abortion, aren't you?" "Sure," Podhoretz replied. "Then you should be on our side of this debate," argued his friend. "Infanticide is just a post-birth abortion, and surely birth can't be an event that transforms a non-person into a person." At that moment, Podhoretz recalled a discussion he'd had with a pro-life person a few years before.

      Now is this really happening? Who knows. But I certainly think it is more likely than that the authors are winning converts. So even if these ideas are less "worthy" of debate it is potentially fruitful to debate them. I just think that we Catholics are setting ourselves up to be censored by taking this position whenever we think an idea is heinous. We need to argue for a "second best" position: Open Debate. Sure closed debate on our terms would be "first best" but it is not possible until the culture comes around a little, so we must compromise.

      Still no?

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    8. And I, like you, am not talking about legal sanctions either. I just mean that if we play along with this game of allowing subjects to be taboo we are going to be shut out of subjects like the immorality of homosexuality more often than we accomplish anything. And to the extent we do keep ideas out (like with the infanticide) it may be as counter-productive as it is productive. After all, we have the marked advantage of having truth on our side.

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    9. Latenter,

      That's pretty convincing, actually.

      My concern is that the free market of ideas seems to presuppose that we operate from basic “first principles” that are increasingly being rejected by utilitarians and others. But I think the Norman Podhoretz is a good one: that most well-adjusted humans have a strong enough conscience that they don't need to be told why infanticide is morally wrong.

      I also think that you hint at an even stronger point: that when we rely on social taboos, we end up not explaining why a certain thing is wrong. And thus, the taboo idea just gets internalized. I think that's increasingly happened with hot-button subjects like racism -- virtually any opinion about race gets characterized as racist by somebody, so people just walk around with a head full of ideas about race, but too afraid to vocalize them.

      You're also right that the Taboo is a powerful weapon in some pretty anti-Catholic hands right now, but I'm not as worried about that. I'm not looking for one set of rules when Catholics are in control, and another set when they're out. I'm just trying to figure out the best way to handle monstrous ideas. But I think you're right: they need to be permitted in the public square and rationally refuted, rather than just shut out. Because the risk of contamination (that is, weak-minded people buying into the monstrous ideas) is probably less than the hope for a cure. And as the Podhoretz example shows, monstrous ideas can even serve as a vaccination.

      I.X.,

      Joe

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    10. Yes! Exactly right about the problem on internalizing taboos thoughtlessly. And as you know from being a recent college student, in sub-cultures such as that there are all sorts of anti-Christian taboos. In fact, Christianity itself is a kind of taboo. People walk around acting as if it is ridiculous without ever explaining why it is wrong. Screwtape calls this sort of thing "flippancy" in letter 11:

      "Among flippant people the joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it. If prolonged, the habit of flippancy builds up around a man the finest armor plating against the Enemy that I know, and it is quite free from the dangers inherent in the other sources of laughter." http://www.ccc-nl.org/mn/ScrewTape_Letter_11_and_questions.pdf

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  11. This approach isn't confined to the USA. A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure (irony on) of listening to discussion on BBC's Radio 4 (the flagship channel for news and current affairs) on 'gay marriage', which our Prime Minister is very keen to facilitate. As always, the producer had picked one representative for each side of the argument to provide balance and fairness.

    This time, the case for 'gay marriage' was made by an Anglican bishop; the case against was made by a militant lesbian feminist who thought that ALL marriage was a patriarchal plot and should be abolished. It would have been amusing, were it not for the implication that there were, in fact, no arguments that any reasonable person could raise against 'gay marriage', apart from arguments which would destroy all marriage.

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    1. Stephen Colbert used to have a bit (perhaps he still does), where he would ask his liberal guests, “George W. Bush: great president, or the greatest president”? That's what this reminds me of.

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  12. We were warned By Jesus this would happen. It is going to get allot worse. Pray for a sustaining Faith!
    The Gospel According to Saint John; Ch.15
    "[18] If the world hate you, know ye, that it hath hated me before you. [19] If you had been of the world, the world would love its own: but because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you. [20] Remember my word that I said to you: The servant is not greater than his master. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you: if they have kept my word, they will keep yours also."

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  13. On Palm Sunday, NPR interviewed an atheist about the historicity of Jesus and told a story about how James Brown was "born dead and miraculously brought back to life". Super-classy.

    http://newsbusters.org/blogs/tim-graham/2012/04/03/npr-anchor-lauds-atheist-author-palm-sunday-says-hes-bought-his-tapes-yo
    http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=149702511

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