Saturday, July 21, 2012

Religion and Morality: A Strained Relationship

The following proposition seems to me in a high degree probable – namely, that any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, the parental and filial affections being here included, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well, or nearly as well developed, as in man.~ Charles Darwin [1]

Excellence is an art won by training and habituation: we do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have these because we have acted rightly . . . we are what we repeatedly do.~ Will Durant [2]

Early in April 2007, a seventeen year-old Kurdish girl named Du’a Khalil Aswad was violently executed in northern Iraq by the members of the extremist Yazidi religious community she belonged to [3]. Her capital offense was become romantically involved with a young man from another religion, a Sunni Muslim boy, with whom she had stayed out all night away from her home [4]. Aswad was literally stoned to death; rocks were physically thrown at her by a crowd of eight or nine men until she died, about thirty minutes into the stoning.

Regardless of what their religious beliefs might be, the vast majority of Americans would look at a story like this and rightly denounce it as an utterly evil and despicable occurrence, and be reminded of how thankful they should be that we are much more civilized than that. However, many of these same Americans (80 percent of whom identify as Christian) do not recognize that what happened to Aswad in the town of Bashiqa, Iraq is precisely what is prescribed in the holy book a great many of them claim to follow and revere as the morally-correct solution to the problem of teenage waywardness and rebellion against parental authority. Just because most Christians in America have graduated away from these barbaric customs does nothing to change the fact that the Judeo-Christian religion they adhere to demands such customs.

It is therefore highly ironic to me that, in my own experience, morality seems to be the last bastion of argumentation religious theists present in their debates with me. When it is explained to them that there are several evolutionary explanations for and accounts of morality, a typical response from the theist is to ask where the sense of obligation to be moral comes from, given a naturalistic origin. This line of argumentation is not limited to the lay believer. Many trained theologians have attempted to argue that our sense of moral obligation itself constitutes proof of the existence of God. Christian apologist William Lane Craig goes so far as to propose that, “We cannot . . . truly be good without God; but if we can in some measure be good, then it follows that God exists [5].”

I say we should examine this claim scientifically. Let us treat as a hypothesis the assertion that God is the source of morals and values, and then proceed to evaluate the consequences that should obtain given that hypothesis. If by “morality” we mean the behaviors which allow sentient, rational beings to live together in peace and harmony (all other things being equal), then there are objective behaviors that promote that end and objective behaviors that detract from it, and this is why we are justified in treating the moral claim of the theists as a scientific proposition to be scrutinized [6].

There are a number of consequences one would expect to see if it is true that our morals and values derive from the kind of God most theists believe in and worship. Most importantly, religious people should behave better; that is, they should commit fewer crimes, engage in child abuse less often, abuse their wives less often, etc. But across the board, there is no evidence that any difference exists between the religious and the nonreligious. In fact, as Michael Shermer reports in his important book The Science of Good and Evil, “Not only is there no evidence that a lack of religiosity leads to less moral behavior, a number of studies actually support the opposite conclusion [7].” While there is no need to belabor this particular point here, it is abundantly clear that there is no sign that people who are god-fearing are any better morally than nonbelievers. Even Christian publications, such as George Barna’s Index of Leading Spiritual Indicators, Relevant magazine and World magazine (among others), have acknowledged and commented on this fact. Surveys conducted by religious pollsters among their own fellow believers have found, for example, that Christian teenagers are just as much involved in premarital sex as their non-Christian counterparts [8] and that born-again Christians are much more likely to get divorced than are non-Christians [9]. This is understandably troubling to the writers and editors of the Christian publications who fully admit and report on this finding, since they believe they are doing their best to teach and instill morality in the younger generation.

Indeed, religion and morality have experienced very strained relations throughout history. This undeniable observation constitutes a good reason why human beings are rationally justified in objecting to so-called “religious morality.” A great deal of what religionists deem to be moral are things that most of the non-religious world immediately and intuitively recognizes as immoral. For example, when the head of the Catholic Church does not allow condoms to be distributed among impoverished Africans [10], many of whom then contract AIDS as a result, in what way has the Catholic Church acted morally? To be sure, the African is certainly being more religious by not using a condom, but this is irrelevant; institutions and individuals introduce more suffering into the world when they make decisions on a religious basis, rather than on a sensible and rational evaluation of what is best for humanity as a whole.

It has been objectively and indisputably shown that parents who refuse to vaccinate their children are endangering not only their own children’s lives, but also the lives of other children with whom the unvaccinated children interact in the classroom and on the playground [11]. Here again is an example of an unfortunate situation that clearly works against the benefit of most people. Why does this situation exist? It exists because of the religious belief held by many people that our divinely created bodies are not to be modified by any medical technology. This is the kind of irrational thinking process that all genuinely moral people must object to. By the same token, it is moral to strongly object to the global “gag rule,” by which government agencies not only seek to limit what can be talked about in women’s clinics around the world, but also threaten to cease funding to clinics whose staff even mentions abortion or condoms or safe sex [12].

Non-religious and freethinking people who actively object to these things have unwittingly helped give rise to the persistent myth of the “militant atheist” or the “fundamentalist atheist.” These are pejorative labels that most of the so-called “new atheists” such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris have been tagged with [13]. I myself have often been labeled as a fundamentalist atheist. My response is this: I would prefer that religious people not hold to their religious beliefs, simply because I prefer to live in a world where everybody acts rationally (which I assume I am). But I am not objecting in principle to people holding whatever private beliefs they might have. My objections are directed toward what they do on behalf of those beliefs when, for example, they attempt to impose them upon other people in the interests of forcing everybody else to live according to the dictates of their particular “God-given morality.”

The Classical Greek philosopher Plato showed over two millennia ago that the concept of a “God-given morality” is not even a meaningful concept. The famous Euthyphro dilemma [14], found in Plato’s Euthyphro dialogue, asks the question: Are morally good acts willed by God because they are good, or are they morally good because they are willed by God? At the heart of this question is an unsolvable conundrum for the theist: If God wills us to engage in morally good acts because such acts are really morally good, this implies that God is subject to a standard higher than himself. On the other hand, if the decrees and commands of God are moral merely because it is God who wills them, then we are not dealing with objective and authentic morality but rather a morality by fiat that proceeds arbitrarily (see figure below).


(Image retrieved from John Danaher's blog Philosophical Disquisitions [15])

Francis Collins on Morality

A great many books have described in detail the social problems associated with religion, and I do not presume to add anything to the fine body of work on the subject. But there is an argument persistently put forth by theologians that I am compelled to address in my own way. Some of these theologians also happen to be scientists. My case in point is geneticist and evangelical Christian apologist Francis Collins, current director of the National Institutes of Health and former head of the successful and groundbreaking Human Genome Project. In his bestselling 2006 book The Language of God, Collins simplistically and naively argues that his belief in a personal God is confirmed by his own inner sense of morality, his inner intuition of what is good and what is bad. Collins does not see how that inner sense could have arisen without God in the picture. After quoting at length the theistic argument from human morality as presented by the early twentieth-century Christian apologist C.S. Lewis, Collins writes,

Encountering this argument at the age of twenty-six, I was stunned by its logic. Here, hiding in my own heart as familiar as anything in daily experience, but now emerging for the first time as a clarifying principle, this Moral Law shone its bright white light into the recesses of my childish atheism, and demanded a serious consideration of its origin. Was this God looking back at me?

And if that were so, what kind of God would this be? Would this be a deist God, who invented physics and mathematics and started the universe in motion about 14 billion years ago, then wandered off to deal with other, more important matters, as Einstein thought? No, this God, if I was perceiving Him at all, must be a theist God, who desires some kind of relationship with those special creatures called human beings, and has therefore instilled this special glimpse of Himself into each one of us. This might be the God of Abraham, but it was certainly not the God of Einstein [16].

One need not be a scientist to see the fallacy in Collins’ viewpoint. All one must do is look at the facts of history. Morality developed long before any religion did; before humans ever invented religion or gods, primitive humanity had a keen sense of morality that allowed them to survive, a sense perhaps far more sensitive and pronounced than in the present day. And the moral sense is not confined to just humans, as if we were endowed from above with a special trait that sets us apart on a higher plane. It has been clearly demonstrated that many animal species exhibit a distinct kind of proto-morality [17]. “Our moral sentiments,” writes Shermer, “evolved out of premoral feelings of our hominid, primate, and mammalian ancestors, the remnants of which can be found in modern apes, monkeys, and other big-brained mammals [18].” After surveying a small sampling of the hundreds of examples of lower animal proto-morality in the scientific literature, Shermer concludes,
The following characteristics appear to be shared by humans and other mammals, including and especially the apes, monkeys, dolphins, and whales: attachment and bonding, cooperation and mutual aid, sympathy and empathy, direct and indirect reciprocity, altruism and reciprocal altruism, conflict resolution and peacemaking, deception and deception detection, community concern and caring about what others think about you, and awareness of and response to the social rules of the group [19].
Collins disputes this, writing, “Though other animals may at times appear to show glimmerings of a moral sense, they are certainly not widespread, and in many instances other species’ behavior seems to be in dramatic contrast to any sense of universal rightness [20].” Sam Harris offers this thorough and hard-hitting rebuttal, which I will not attempt to improve upon:
One wonders if the author has ever read a newspaper. The behavior of humans offers no such “dramatic contrast.” How badly must human beings behave to put this “sense of universal rightness” in doubt? And just how widespread must “glimmerings” of morality be among other animals before Collins—who, after all, knows a thing or two about genes—begins to wonder whether our moral sense has evolutionary precursors in the natural world? What if mice showed greater distress at the suffering of familiar mice than unfamiliar ones? (They do.) What if monkeys will starve themselves to prevent their cage-mates from receiving painful shocks? (They will.) What if chimps have a demonstrable sense of fairness when receiving food rewards? (They have.) Wouldn’t these be precisely the sorts of findings one would expect if our morality were the product of evolution? [21]

Biblical Morality

So, does the morality of humans and of the lower animals come from God? In addressing this question, let us start with examining the sources people cite when arguing the affirmative. The sources used are usually holy scriptures. For example, one often hears Christians claiming that the New Testament is the greatest document of moral teaching ever penned. And yet the New Testament contains not a single original moral teaching.

Furthermore, there are many teachings and principles in the Bible that most people, including Christians, certainly regard as immoral in any other context. For example, the Bible clearly supports slavery in no uncertain terms and even regulates its practice:

When you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, and in the seventh he shall go out free, for nothing. If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him. If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s and he shall go out alone. But if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free,’ then his master shall bring him to God, and he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost; and his master shall bore his ear through with an awl; and he shall serve him for life.

When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do.

(Exodus 21:2-7, Revised Standard Version).

This is a clear instance, not only of biblical support and endorsement of human slavery, but also of the treatment of women as property whose value is less than that of men. Support for the subjugation of women is elsewhere evident throughout the Bible. According to Genesis 2:23, woman is a subsequent and inferior creation to man: “Then the man said, ‘This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man’” (RSV). This verse is invoked by St. Paul in the New Testament in support of his view of women as inferior beings subject to men’s control:
But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God. Any man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled dishonors her head--it is the same as if her head were shaven. For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her wear a veil. For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. (For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.)

(I Corinthians 11:3-9, RSV)

The subjugation of women is a common and recurring theme throughout both the Old and New Testament. Following is merely a small sampling:
[T]he women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church (I Corinthians 14:34-35, RSV).

Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands (Ephesians 5:22-24, RSV).

Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor (I Timothy 2:11-14, RSV).

Biblical Relativism

People who claim that they use the Bible as a source of their morality are being highly disingenuous, whether consciously or unconsciously. Fortunately, very few people actually base their morality on the Bible. If they did, they would be in full support of a number of other social ills we find fully endorsed and even commanded in the pages of the Bible, among them slavery and the subjugation of women, as we have already seen. But thankfully, most modern-day Bible believers do not support these evils. What they have done instead is to decide for themselves what is right and what is wrong, in just the same way atheists and all other non-Christians do. Bible believers routinely pick-and-choose aspects of the Bible to incorporate into their moral framework; wherever the Bible happens to say something they perceive to be morally proper, they jump on that and claim that they acquired that piece of moral literacy from the Bible. But in reality they did nothing of the sort. They inculcated what they perceive to be properly moral from their own personal sense of right and wrong. The vast majority of Christians today certainly do not support slavery. Why not? The Bible certainly does not tell them to stand against slavery. They oppose slavery because they themselves have decided that slavery is bad and not conducive to the functioning of a progressive, healthy society.

Christians who claim they are basing their morality on the Bible are simply not thinking back far enough. Consider: even if a believer were to base his entire moral compass straight from the Bible (one shudders to think of it), he himself has still made the initial decision in the first place that the Bible is a good guidebook. The believer has used his own moral judgment to determine that what he reads in the Bible is actually good. Otherwise, no believer would be able to objectively discern any qualitative difference between God and the Devil [22]. Sure, the Christian Biblicist believes in both of them, and one can find information in the book concerning both personages. But Christian Biblicists have made a personal decision, based on their own subjective morality, that God is the one who is good and not the Devil. Thus, that which Christians often denounce and condemn as “moral relativism” is exactly what the very same Christians are committing when they autonomously choose the Bible as their guide.

But, to be as conciliatory as possible, I am not willing to go so far as to charge Bible believers with moral relativism, as they often do to us nonbelievers. They have simply and legitimately used their own free will to decide what is right and what is wrong. Contrary to the prevailing postmodern viewpoint, an “absolute morality” (for lack of a better term) does exist, in a certain carefully-defined sense. That is, there are a number of moral propositions that we as human beings uniformly believe to be the case. For instance, with the exception of confirmed sociopaths, humans uniformly believe that telling the truth is good. What kind of society would we find ourselves in if people very rarely spoke the truth? Nobody could believe what anybody said [23]. Or what if everybody murdered other people on a regular basis? [24]

In either of these hypothetical cases, a functioning society would obviously not be possible to maintain, and humanity would very soon go extinct as a consequence. As a species, we humans have adopted certain uniform moral precepts based upon our own need to live and thrive together in a productive society. Atheists get their sense of morality from the same source as people who falsely believe they receive it from the Bible. The only difference is that we atheists understand where morality actually comes from: morality emerges naturally out of hundreds of thousands of years of human societal evolution [25].

The only people to whom this naturalistic understanding of morality is not self-evident are those who have simply not bothered to take the time to really think about the issue. Most people, especially the devoutly religious, are far more willing to take the easy path of avoiding deep scrutiny of their beliefs. They are more willing to content themselves with the comforting but apathetic thought that all their moral reasoning comes from a single book dictated by their God, who has done all their moral reasoning for them.

The Sermon on the Mount, the Ten Commandments, and Biblical Illiteracy

The general lack of scrutiny and critical thinking described above is perhaps best evidenced by the impressions and interpretations with which most Christians in this country comprehend and approach the “Golden Rule.” Most Christians tell us that the Golden Rule is the most preeminent and brilliant moral idea, and that it originated in the teachings of Jesus Christ. Where might they have heard such a notion? They certainly did not read it in the Bible. The most common place they hear it propagated is straight from the pulpit, spoken disingenuously by preachers who must know better. Those few churchgoers and average believers who actually read and study the Bible for themselves will find that Jesus does not take any credit for what has come to be known as the Golden Rule, but instead attributes the idea to the prophets of old: “So, whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law of the prophets” (Matthew 7:12, RSV).

But the Golden Rule is older even than the ancient Hebrews who penned Leviticus, where the phrase “love thy neighbor as thyself” first appears a thousand years before Christ (Leviticus 19:18). A search through the annals of history shows that virtually every culture that has ever existed featured a Golden Rule in some form:

Confucius (551-479 BCE) taught a Golden Rule philosophy in his work The Doctrine of the Mean, written about 500 BCE: “Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire” (13.3).

Confucius was hardly breaking new ground; virtually every major moral figure in history, including those who lacked any obvious association with religion, had already established the principle. Before Confucius, the third century biographer Diogenes Laërtius attributed to Thales of Miletus the teaching, “Refrain from doing what we blame in others for doing” (Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers I,39).

In approximately the year 375 BCE, Isocrates said, “Do not do to others what would anger you if done to you by others [26].”

An Egyptian papyrus dating from the Late Period (640-323 BCE) exhorts, “That which you hate to be done to you, do not do to another [27].”

The Hindu Mahabharata, written around 150 BCE, exhorts its devotees to “deal with others as thou wouldst thyself be dealt with” (5:1517).

Many more instances of the Golden Rule abound throughout history [28].

This is hardly a surprising phenomenon. The Golden Rule philosophy is a very rudimentary and common-sense idea; it should naturally be among the first notions that enter the mind of anybody who even begins to think about how other people should be treated. I reiterate: the Golden Rule is an excellent example of common sense, and we do not require the help of a divine being or a god-man to come up with the idea.

Taken as a whole, the New Testament’s “Sermon on the Mount” is almost always approached uncritically and unreflectively by Christians of all denominations. Over and over again, Christians are heard saying that even people who are not Christians must admit that the teachings and sayings of Jesus were very good and wise ideas. This is not the case. Sure, some of the sayings attributed to Jesus are worthy of being considered items of good moral wisdom. But there are also a number of highly unintelligent and naïve teachings attributed to Jesus as well, particularly in the Sermon on the Mount.

This observation inspired Matt Dillahunty, current president of the Atheist Community of Austin in Texas, to write a detailed and thorough point-by-point deconstruction of the Sermon on the Mount for the Iron Chariots counter-apologetics wiki website. In this excellent deconstruction (which I think should be published in pamphlet form and distributed in every church), Dillahunty unsparingly points out the parts of the Sermon in which Jesus gives downright bad advice as well as the parts in which patently false claims about reality are made [29].

Critical evaluations of the Sermon on the Mount reveal the absurdity of the often-repeated claim that the Sermon is “the greatest speech ever delivered in human history,” simply because it may have tugged at peoples’ heartstrings for two thousand years. But the Sermon on the Mount is not the greatest speech anybody has ever given. Not only does it contain plenty of bad advice, but it also conspicuously lacks any really good advice that most civilized people would consider essential, such as “Do not enslave your fellow man.” Would it not be fitting for Jesus, supposedly the “greatest moral teacher who ever lived,” to have denounced slavery as a bad thing to be avoided by healthy societies and individuals? But Jesus is never reported to have condemned slavery, though he had plenty of opportunity and occasion to do so. Indeed, later in the New Testament, St. Paul positively expresses his support of human slavery very strongly [30]. This will hardly come as a shock to those who have actually read and studied the Bible without the blinders or preset assumptions of pious belief [31].

Fundamentalist Christians in the United States even go so far as to suggest that the American legal system is based on the Ten Commandments, which is ludicrous even by the fundamentalists’ standards of biblical interpretation. Only three of the Ten Commandments are a part of any moral system today. Even this is being generous, since one of these three is a prohibition against the minor societal offense of adultery. While adultery is considered immoral by most people, secular and religious alike, it is not generally illegal in any modern, industrialized country. The remaining two laws, “Thou shalt not kill” and “Thou shalt not steal,” are common-sense laws that certainly predate the early Hebrew culture and was hardly originated by them. The remaining seven laws in the Ten Commandments all consist of Yahweh’s demands that his people worship him and no other deity.

Where in the Ten Commandments (or in the entire Bible, for that matter), do we ever find the concept of democracy or liberty endorsed or even mentioned? It is nowhere to be found, and this should come as no surprise to any reasonable person. Even the concept of the Trinity, a central tenet of Christian dogma, is never actually addressed or even mentioned anywhere in the Bible [32]. Much less so the foundations of American law!

Nevertheless, theists often insist on resorting to the circular and non-falsifiable route of claiming that basic common-sense morality, which naturally manifests itself in almost every culture through teachings like the Golden Rule and laws against murder and theft, is itself an indication of the existence and influence of God. Collins, for example, asserts that our most basic moral instincts constitute “an inkling of what lies beyond, a signpost placed deep within the human spirit pointing toward something much grander than ourselves . . . [33]” The idea here, when expressed in less theological and sentimental language, is that morality is hardwired into humans by a spiritual conduit through the hundreds of thousands of years of our history.

How might a rational skeptic argue with this kind of bland assertion? In the face of all we know about the science of human behavior, this assertion becomes little more than an unnecessary ancillary hypothesis. Why must a supernatural power be posited to explain the hardwiring of morality into human behavior? Natural evolution is already more than capable of providing an explanation that is not only more simple and economical, but also far more plausible and evidence-based [34]. In responding to this theistic rationale, physicist and philosopher Victor Stenger writes, “Okay, so the Abrahamic God could have planted these ideas in people’s minds from the beginning. However, the truth is that we cannot point to the scriptures of Jews, Christians, and Muslims as the unique origin of the Golden Rule. More likely, thoughtful human beings reasoned it out in their own minds as a useful principle that humans could live by to make a better society for all [35].”

Where Do We Go from Here?

Francis Collins demonstrates in his book that his reasons for believing in and committing his life to a personal god who created the universe are not science-based or evidence-derived. Rather, he was convinced to become a theist based on the provably flawed argumentation of a pious children’s author. Moreover, near the end of his book, Collins relates a subjective experience that finally drove him to not just believe in the Christian God, but also to pray to this entity and surrender his life to it:

Lewis was right. I had to make a choice. A full year had passed since I decided to believe in some sort of God, and now I was being called to account. On a beautiful fall day, as I was hiking in the Cascade Mountains during my first trip west of the Mississippi, the majesty and beauty of God’s creation overwhelmed my resistance. As I rounded a corner and saw a beautiful and unexpected frozen waterfall, hundreds of feet high, I knew the search was over. The next morning, I knelt in the dewy grass as the sun rose and surrendered to Jesus Christ [36].
According to a Time magazine profile on Collins [37], the most compelling aspect of the waterfall he stumbled upon during his hike (that which made it so “unexpected”) was that it had frozen into three separate streams. This natural formation powerfully reminded Collins of the Trinity and further cemented his desire to devote himself to Christianity. The fact that this labile self-deception comes from a highly trained scientist is why neuroscientist Sam Harris calls The Language of God “a genuinely astonishing book” and states that those who read it will “witness nothing less than an intellectual suicide [38].” I suggest that a far more accurate subtitle for Collins’s book would be A C.S. Lewis Admirer Presents Emotional Reasons for Belief, for he effectively reduces human morality to subjective feeling and an excuse for credulity throughout.

What I find most disturbing about the Moral Argument for God’s Existence is that the people who promote the argument do so from such a tremendous position of ignorance. Instead of examining the history of moral development in human culture and the sources of modern law, they are content to theorize using very bad philosophy. “I cannot conceive of any way that we can be good, except with the help of a God,” they routinely say. Why not?

Herein is seen the importance of the so-called “New Atheist” movement of the last decade [39]. The goal of the New Atheists, which we are accomplishing little by little as time goes on, is (1) to encourage people from all walks of life to start asking tough questions about beliefs that our culture at large takes for granted, (2) to oblige theistic apologists to think through their arguments more carefully and hold them to a higher standard of critical reasoning and (3) to teach our children to not simply rely on authority (either their own or that of anybody else), but to think for themselves. When and if this goal is realized to a noticeable degree, the world will be a much better place than it is now, when religion dominates.

NOTES

1. Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex Second Edition (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1901), p. 99.

2. Will Durant (1926), The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the World’s Greatest Philosophers from Plato to John Dewey (New York: Pocket Books, 2006), p. 98.

3. Daily Mail, “The Moment a Teenage Girl Was Stoned to Death for Loving the Wrong Boy,” Daily Mail Online 3 May 2007, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-452288/The-moment-teenage-girl-stoned-death-loving-wrong-boy.html (accessed 21 July 2012).

4. Amnesty International, “Iraq: ‘Honour Killing’ of Teenage Girl Condemned as Abhorrent,” Amnesty.org.uk 2 May 2007, http://www.amnesty.org.uk/news_details.asp?NewsID=17351 (accessed 21 July 2012).

5. William Lane Craig, “The Indispensability of Theological Meta-ethical Foundations for Morality,” Foundations 5 (1997): 9-12.

6. Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (New York: Free Press, 2010).

7. Michael Shermer, The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule (New York: Times Books, 2004), p. 235.

8. Tyler Charles, “(Almost) Everyone’s Doing It,” Relevant September/October 2011, pp. 65-66; Gene Edward Veith, “Sex and the Evangelical Teen,” World August 11, 2007, available online at http://www.worldmag.com/articles/13208 (accessed 21 July 2012).

9. George Barna, The Index of Leading Spiritual Indicators (Dallas, TX: Word Publishing, 1996).

10. BBC News, “Pope Rejects Condoms for Africa,” BBC News 10 June 2005, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/4081276.stm (accessed 21 July 2012); CNN.com, “Pope Visits Africa, Reaffirms Ban on Condoms,” CNN 18 March 2009, http://edition.cnn.com/2009/WORLD/africa/03/17/cameroon.pope/ (accessed 21 July 2012); Anna Clark, “The Pope is Still Sidestepping the Issue of Contraception and AIDS,” The Guardian 23 November 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2011/nov/23/pope-contraception-aids (accessed 21 July 2012).

11. Paul A. Offit, M.D., Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All (New York: Basic Books, 2010); Michael Specter, Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives (New York: Penguin Press, 2009), pp. 57-102; Steven Novella, “The Anti-Vaccination Movement,” in Kendrick Frazier, ed., Science Under Siege: Defending Science, Exposing Pseudoscience (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2009), 185-194; Richard G. Judelsohn, “Vaccine Safety: Vaccines Are One of Public Health’s Great Accomplishments,” in Frazier, ed., Science Under Siege, pp. 195-6.

12. Sean Faircloth, Attack of the Theocrats: How the Religious Right Harms Us All – and What We Can Do About It (Charlottesville, VA: Pitchstone Publishing, 2012), pp. 45-47.

13. See, for example, Alister McGrath, The Dawkins Delusion: Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007) and Chris Hedges, When Atheism Becomes Religion: America’s New Fundamentalists (New York: Free Press, 2008).

14. The original formulation of this dilemma is found in Plato’s Euthyphro dialogue (10a): “Is the pious being loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is being loved by the gods?” (This is G.M.A. Grube’s translation in Plato: Five Dialogues Second Edition [Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 2002], p. 12).

15. John Danaher, “God and Morality (Part 2): Owing Duties and the Euthyphro Dilemma,” Philosophical Disquisitions: Things Hid and Barr’d from Common Sense (blog), January 2, 2010, http://philosophicaldisquisitions.blogspot.com/2010/01/god-and-morality-part-2-owing-duties.html (accessed 21 July 2012).

16. Francis S. Collins, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (New York: Free Press, 2006), p. 29.

17. Matt Ridley, The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation (New York: Viking, 1997); Christopher Boehm, Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999); Nicholas Wade, “Scientist Finds the Beginnings of Morality in Primate Behavior,” The New York Times March 20, 2007, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/20/science/20moral.html?pagewanted=all (accessed 21 July 2012); John Noble Wilford, “Chimpanzees: Almost Human, and Sometimes Smarter,” The New York Times April 17, 2007, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/17/science/17chimp.html?pagewanted=all (accessed 21 July 2012).

18. Shermer, The Science of Good and Evil, pp. 26-27.

19. Ibid., p. 31.

20. Collins, The Language of God, p. 23.

21. Sam Harris, “The Language of Ignorance,” Truthdig: Drilling Beneath the Headlines 15 August 2006, http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/20060815_sam_harris_language_ignorance (accessed 21 July 2012).

22. Indeed, nonbelievers who read and study the Bible have often challenged believers to explain why it is that the supposedly all-powerful God described in the Bible never takes it upon himself to stop Satan from corrupting the world and wreaking havoc on humanity. Unbeknownst to the vast majority of Bible believers, higher biblical criticism has shown that God and Satan, far from being understood as archenemies, were portrayed by the ancients as allies working toward the same ends, at least temporarily. See Nathan Dickey, “Why Does God Not Stop Satan? A Response to Lavern,” The Journeyman Heretic (blog) 6 June 2010, http://journeymanheretic.blogspot.com/2010/06/why-does-god-not-stop-satan-response-to.html (accessed 21 July 2012) and references therein.

23. Sam Harris, Lying (published as an e-book by SamHarris.org, 2011).

24. Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (New York: Viking, 2011).

25. There has been an enormous development in recent years of studies on the evolution of morality, with numerous books and articles available at both the scholarly and popular level. See, for example, Robert Axelrod, The Evolution of Cooperation (New York: Basic Books, 1984); Richard D. Alexander, The Biology of Moral Systems (Hawthorne, NY: Aldine de Gruyter, 1987); Robert Wright, The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology (New York: Vintage Books, 1994); Frans B.M. de Waal, Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996); Matt Ridley, The Origins of Virtue; Larry Arnhart, Darwinian Natural Right: The Biological Ethics of Human Nature (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1998); Elliott Sober and David Sloan Wilson, Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998); Leonard D. Katz, ed., Evolutionary Origins of Morality: Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives (Bowling Green, OH: Imprint Academic, 2000); Jessica C. Flack and Frans B.M. de Waal, “’Any Animal Whatever’: Darwinian Building Blocks of Morality in Monkeys and Apes,” Journal of Consciousness Studies 7, nos. 1-2 (2000): 1-29; Donald M. Broom, The Evolution of Morality and Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003); Shermer, The Science of Good and Evil; M. Rutherford, “The Evolution of Morality,” Groundings 1 (2007); Christopher Boehm, Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame (New York: Basic Books, 2012).

26. Quoted in William F. Loomis, Life As It Is: Biology for the Public Sphere (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 2008), p. 170.

27. Richard Jasnow, A Late Period Hieratic Wisdom Text: P. Brooklyn P. 47.218.135 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), p. 85.

28. Shermer, The Science of Good and Evil, pp. 25-26.

29. Matt Dillahunty, “Sermon on the Mount,” Iron Chariots: The Counter-Apologetics Wiki n.d. (last updated December 14, 2011), http://wiki.ironchariots.org/index.php?title=Sermon_on_the_Mount (accessed 20 July 2012).

30. Chapman Cohen, Christianity, Slavery and Labour Third Edition (London: Pioneer Press, 1931), p. 10.

31. Dan Barker, Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists (Berkeley, CA: Ulysses Press, 2008), pp. 171-184.

32. Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know about Them) (New York: HarperOne, 2009), pp. 254-60.

33. Collins, The Language of God, pp. 36-37.

34. For information and references relating to the evolution of morality via naturalistic processes, see Douglas Allchin’s website “The Evolution of Morality,” http://www1.umn.edu/ships/evolutionofmorality/ (accessed 21 July 2012).

35. Victor J. Stenger, God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2012), p. 254.

36. Collins, The Language of God, p. 225.

37. David Van Biema, “Reconciling God and Science,” Time 10 July 2006, http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1211593-1,00.html (accessed 21 July 2012). See also Steve Paulson, “The Believer,” Salon 7 August 2006, http://www.salon.com/2006/08/07/collins_6/ (accessed 21 July 2012).

38. Harris, The Moral Landscape, p. 160.

39. Victor J. Stenger, The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2009).

Monday, July 16, 2012

Religion in American Popular Culture (Part 6): Conclusion

Part 1: Introduction

Part 2: Secular vs. Religious Uses of Mass Media

Part 3: Contemporary Christian Music

Part 4: Christian Novels

Part 5: Biblical Epics and Evangelistic Filmmaking

The grip that the modern mass media maintains on all aspects of social life is strong, and it has evolved over the centuries to become an entity through which our understanding of the world and of our interactions with it is filtered. But the mass media is also a mirror, reflecting the values that society at large places on the issues that affect us most, from politics to economics to religion. This is why religion, which has shaped and transformed the lives of individuals and societies, figures so prominently in popular culture and mass media. But the merging of religion with mainstream popular culture is in many ways a bewildering and, for that reason, fascinating paradox, a paradox that is immediately inherent in the very concept of a higher being communicating with lowly humanity, the transference of infinite wisdom to finite and deficient understanding prone to error and distortion. The biggest challenge faced by evangelical religion in the world of popular culture is to simultaneously offer products that transcend materialistic market philosophies and also reach the masses and meet them where they are by imitating secular forms and styles. Evangelical religion, especially in America, has faced this challenge head-on; popular culture is Christianity’s largest and most treaded missionary field.

But religion has only seen partial success in the mission field of popular culture. As Moore writes, “[W]ellness does not carry with it transformative power. The paradigm-busters are nowhere in view. Those people who wait in these times for the numerically impressive organizations of American religion to coalesce into a powerful redemptive force are bound to find the present circumstances profoundly unsatisfying [1].” Although religion has certainly not diminished in the face of growing secularization (and in some respects has been enriched by it), the increasingly blurred between the sacred and the profane has rendered the ideals taught by religion a performance to be participated in by the masses through consumer culture, and not through rigorous ecclesiastical codes of conduct and ritual. According to Stewart Hoover, “[D]espite its intentions and pretensions, the electronic church holds out promise mainly for those who are most easily convinced, not for a broader society in need of some sort of hope [2].” If the “hope” that Hoover mentions here is a reference to something beyond the material, American Christianity certainly cannot offer that. “[M]aterial consumption,” writes James Twitchell, is “an expression of belief. Before we are spiritualists, we are materialists . . . No major religion compares with Christianity for its inventory of totemic stuff [3].”

Religion is every bit as much a performance as is gender or race. Indeed, it must be in order to maintain any semblance of relevancy. This makes evangelical religion a cultural commodity among many others, as there is little relevancy or appeal in cloistered, cult-like messages that promote a stifling sectarian outlook on life. This sectarian outlook is present in the Christian products that have been trapped within the confines of a particular subculture separated from the broader culture. Instead of merging with secular culture seamlessly, religion has been too transparent that what it is often engaging in is imitation, and the secular, diverse world of consumers can see this all too clearly. “That it [the modern church] fails to reach many aside from those who already are adherents suggests that its cultural appeal is very limited, indeed [4].”

To the extent that secularization of the sacred has actually enriched American religion, it has done so by universalizing its message, not by making a narrow, fundamentalist worldview appealing to the masses. This universalization has effectively diluted the “narrow path to salvation” philosophy that Christianity advocated for centuries. Further research can and should be conducted on how popular culture was one force among many that dragged a religion rooted in ancient tradition and medieval philosophy into the modern age that obliged it to conform to a more healthy humanism and progressive morality, since most research in this area focuses on the role and influence of science and civil philosophy in this regard.

NOTES

1. R. Laurence Moore, Selling God: American Religion in the Marketplace of Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), pp. 275-276.

2. Stewart M. Hoover, Mass Media Religion: The Social Sources of the Electronic Church (Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, 1988), p. 245.

3. James B. Twitchell, Shopping for God: How Christianity Went From In Your Heart to In Your Face (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007), pp. 61-62.

4. Hoover, Mass Media Religion, p. 245.

Religion in American Popular Culture (Part 5): Biblical Epics and Evangelistic Filmmaking

But he could laugh and cough, couldn’t he? He’s always depicted as so solemn, walking slowly, with his hands held like this . . .” [1]

The Public, bless ‘em, must have a pretty face to look at . . . Well, isn't there any romance or adventure in the world without having a flapper in it?” ~ Carl Denham, from the movie King Kong (1933)

When Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ hit theaters in February of 2004, both the filmmakers and some segments of the general public were taken aback by the resounding success and popularity it achieved. It was not anticipated that a movie whose source inspiration was a medieval book of esoteric Passion visions penned in the 19th century by an Augustinian stigmatic nun [2], and which was dubbed entirely in the dead language of Aramaic, would make much of an impact on the modern movie-going public [3].

Hollywood veteran Mel Gibson fully realized the financial risks accompanying a bold venture such as this. But contrary to modest expectations and tentative, awkward steps in initial marketing and release that was unconventional almost by necessity, The Passion of the Christ did indeed make a resounding impact. According to an online poll conducted by Beliefnet.com (answered by approximately twelve thousand people and sponsored by Zondervan, the world’s largest publisher of Bibles), 62 percent were reading the Bible more as a result of seeing the movie. The poll also found that 41 percent of respondents had a more positive view of the Bible after seeing the movie, while 75 percent indicated when asked that the movie portrayed events “very close” to the Bible’s account of Jesus’ death [4].

This last statistic is of particular interest; it is no secret that images are rapidly replacing texts as a primary vehicle for information of all kinds, especially entertainment. This unseating of textual mediums means that, in a country for whose citizens religion is a deeply-embedded preoccupation, visual media is an obvious direction for communication of a distinctly religious (and especially evangelistic) bent to venture down. Religious themes have found their way into the medium of film almost from its very inception. As Robert Johnston points out in his book Reel Spirituality, religious subjects were prominent in many early films, many of which were made by religious people, and as the relationship between the church and the movie industry grew and matured, so did the quality of the way in which religion and the Bible were presented [5].

Midrash at the Movies

The ubiquity of this growth and maturation is evidenced by the fact that the version of the Old Testament with which a wide swath of the American public is most familiar is that of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 epic film The Ten Commandments. Because of this well-known cultural blockbuster, which highly sanitizes the biblical life of Moses, a surprising number of people who revere the Bible are not even aware that the Moses character is depicted in the Book of Exodus as a sneaky murderer who goes on to lead a massive, ideologically-motivated slaughter of over 3,000 of his own people whom he initially freed from Egypt (Exodus 32).

The “cinematic redactors” (as I like to call them) were aided in their Midrashic process by their liberal use of sources. In crafting the script, the writers of The Ten Commandments drew not only from the Old Testament’s Book of Exodus, but also from the writings of Philo of Alexandria [6] and Josephus [7], both of whom added several creative details to the story. In addition to these sources, the film writers incorporated material from three fiction novels about Moses written between the mid-to-late nineteenth century and the middle of the twentieth century [8].

The New Testament’s Gospels are similarly cinematic and dramatized in the minds of most of the American public, more so than anciently textual. In addition to Mel Gibson’s wildly popular Passion of the Christ, other successful cinematic ventures have included Franco Zeffirelli’s equally-Catholicizing but much-cleaner 1977 miniseries Jesus of Nazareth and Norman Jewison’s Jesus Christ Superstar, the 1973 film adaptation of the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice rock opera of the same name. More recent offerings include Catherine Hardwicke’s 2006 American film The Nativity Story and the BBC’s 2010 miniseries The Nativity in the UK (written by Tony Jordan and directed by Coky Giedroyc).

Movies like The Ten Commandments have become the new definitive version of the Old Testament’s legendary tales, the Book of Exodus having been relegated to the stack of raw material. On a general level, this is not a new trend. It is the modern incarnation of the homiletic Midrashim method of interpretation, applied in ancient times to biblical texts to fill in gaps left in the scriptural narratives. It is also essentially the same process indulged in by the Aramaic Targum, which popularized paraphrases and etiological expansions of the Jewish scriptures in the common language of the people near the end of the last century before the Christian Era. Even in Josephus’s classic historical work Antiquities of the Jews (composed near the end of the first century CE), Josephus promises his readers at the outset that to give only the most accurate details of the historical events, not adding or subtracting anything:

And now I exhort all those that peruse these books, to apply their minds to God; and to examine the mind of our legislator [Moses], whether he hath not understood his nature in a manner worthy of him; and hath not ever ascribed to him such operations as become his power, and hath not preserved his writings from those indecent fables which others have framed, although, by the great distance of time when he lived, he might have securely forged such lies; for he [Moses] lived two thousand years ago; at which vast distance of ages the poets themselves have not been so hardy as to fix even the generations of their gods, much less the actions of their men, or their own laws. As I proceed, therefore, I shall accurately describe what is contained in our records, in the order of time that belongs to them; for I have already promised so to do throughout this undertaking; and this without adding any thing to what is therein contained, or taking away any thing therefrom [9].
However, one finds upon reading the Antiquities that all manner of changes and imaginative additions crept their way in. For instance, consider Josephus’s explanation as to why Pharaoh tries to kill all the male infants and toddlers of the Hebrews; Josephus would have us know that Pharaoh does not undertake this campaign because he is afraid of the Hebrews for any particular reason, but rather because he is fearful of a single prophesied deliverer of his Hebrew minions:
[T]here was this occasion offered itself to the Egyptians, which made them more solicitous for the extinction of our nation. One of those sacred scribes, who are very sagacious in foretelling future events truly, told the king, that about this time there would a child be born to the Israelites, who, if he were reared, would bring the Egyptian dominion low, and would raise the Israelites; that he would excel all men in virtue, and obtain a glory that would be remembered through all ages. Which thing was so feared by the king, that, according to this man's opinion, he commanded that they should cast every male child, which was born to the Israelites, into the river, and destroy it; that besides this, the Egyptian midwives should watch the labors of the Hebrew women, and observe what is born, for those were the women who were enjoined to do the office of midwives to them; and by reason of their relation to the king, would not transgress his commands. He enjoined also, that if any parents should disobey him, and venture to save their male children alive, they and their families should be destroyed [10].
This premise is clearly ahistorical as well as extra-biblical (it is nowhere to be found in Exodus), but most people recognize it immediately, and erroneously believe it to be in the Bible, due to its inclusion in DeMille’s The Ten Commandments.

Defamiliarization

In addition to their etiological and harmonizing function, films that depict sacred narratives serve an actualizing function. That is, they are visual tools designed, whether consciously or subconsciously, to aid the faithful in visualizing the ancient accounts that form the basis of their worldview. This differs in kind from the enhancing powers of the written word of fiction novels, because visual media presents a ready-made vision to the viewer over which his or her imagination has no altering power, whereas the narratives of fiction novels are conformed to the subjective visions of different readers. In many ways this visual kind of experience is far more compelling to people than text; after all, a great many people would love nothing less than to jump into a time machine and travel back to first-century Palestine to meet Jesus face to face, like Michael Moorcock’s character Karl Glogauer in his science-fiction novel Behold the Man [11], or to be whisked away back in time by some ancient magic to witness firsthand the major stories and events related in the Bible, as in Hanna-Barbera’s animated series The Greatest Adventure.

Of particular importance in interpreting the function of these films in this way is the concept of defamiliarization, the technique of enhancing the familiar by compelling audiences to view things that are commonly recognizable by the audience in an unfamiliar or groundbreaking way that is cathartic or refreshing to the imagination. The Christ narratives certainly fall within the category of the universally familiar. “Like the narratives of Greek tragedy, the Christ narratives dramatise a familiar story, the rudiments of which we are familiar with, even if we may not be believers, perhaps even more so than with those of other biopics, a genre to which in significant ways the Christ narratives belong [12].” Bible scholar Robert M. Price elaborates on this function quite eloquently:

Because the gospel events are extraordinary, superhuman, we have elevated them to the status of religious myth and dogma. And, ironically, these we take for granted! Once one has heard them embedded in dull sermons for years, clubbed to death by a decade of pedantic Sunday School teachers, the shocking mandates of the Sermon on the Mount come to seem as familiar as the words of a TV commercial . . . And so, if the tale is to strike us again, it must be defamiliarized. And the only way to defamiliarize it is to make it sound mundane, profane [13].
However, the concept of defamiliarization constituted a double-edged sword for Christians interested in spreading their gospel via the silver screen. When applied to such a revered figure as Jesus Christ, defamiliarization has the potential to strike many devout believers as subversive or heretical. As Gerald Forshey observes, “Jesus presented quite a different problem [than DeMille’s Moses] because he was the object of faith [14].” It is interesting to note that none of the major Jesus films that came from Hollywood in the twentieth century were produced by explicitly-branded Christian writers or studios, with the sole exception of Barnet Bain’s Jesus (1979). Although Cecil B. DeMille is mostly remembered for his biblical epics, most of his films were not biblically-based or inspired. His 1927 silent film The King of Kings builds up to a great defamiliarizing finale, in which the final sight given of Jesus as he ascends to heaven following his resurrection is above a vision of an urban cityscape in which modernistic architecture combines with belching factory-smoke. The intertitle “Lo, I am with you always” appears, as the music of the well-known hymn “Rock of Ages” plays in the background. Babington and Evans offer the interesting interpretation that this final scene “turns the crisis of evolution (rocks, geological strata, the evidence of the existence of life forms outside the scope of biblical explanation) back, even as we remember that the film was made only two years after the Dayton evolution or ‘Monkey’ trial of 1925, into images of comfort, solidity and refuge [15].”

On the other hand, enterprising evangelists soon realized that adapting their religious message to a secular movie-going audience, who would much rather immerse themselves in a good film than sit through a sermon, meant that they too would have to translate the sacred into the “profane,” to defamiliarize the sacred. But filmmaking of an explicitly Christian brand did not fully mature until the early 1970s. While evangelicals have historically not been fearful of technology and innovation, “it is certainly true that evangelicals were slow in catching on to the evangelistic possibilities of motion pictures, due at least in part to lingering doubts about Hollywood morality and its ‘communist’ sympathies [16].”

Thus, it makes sense that one of the first successful evangelical films to be made, spearheaded by Russell S. Doughten and Donald W. Thompson, featured a plot that explicitly depicted Communist tendencies in government as evil and even Satanic. The use of film media to further evangelistic ends was largely pioneered by Doughten and Thompson. Their claim to fame was the 1972 sleeper hit film A Thief in the Night, an end-times thriller in which a young woman awakes to finds herself alone in the world after her husband disappears in the “Rapture” (in Christian Dispensationalist theology, a term for the divine snatching away of the righteous from the earth at the end of time). The film follows her struggle to cope with a nightmarish world in which a one-world government emerges almost instantly after the worldwide disappearances and local authorities hunt her down with the intent to mark her as a loyal citizen upon pain of death.

Despite the relatively impactful nature of A Thief in the Night and its three sequels within the Christian subculture, Christian evangelical filmmaking slowly dwindled in originality and production quality over the next decades, due to its sequestered position within a narrow evangelical niche that saw little or no infusions of large funds enjoyed by big budget Hollywood fares. Hollywood business is rightfully very wary of films that explicitly promote a sectarian worldview, since they know such films will only appeal to a very small portion of the population. Witness, for example, the box-office failure of films that unsubtly and unambiguously promote specific religions and worldviews, such as 2000’s Battlefield Earth (Scientology), 2003's The Book of Mormon Movie, Volume 1: The Journey (Mormonism), or 2011’s Atlas Shrugged: Part 1 (Randian Objectivism). By the time Left Behind: World at War (the third installment in the Left Behind movie series) came along in 2005, it became the first in film history to be released exclusively in churches instead of a theater.

NOTES

1. La Voie lactée, directed by Luis Buñuel (1969; New York City, NY: The Criterion Collection, 2007).

2. Anne Catherine Emmerich, The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ (New York, NY: Cosimo Books, 1923).

3. For my critical review of the movie, see Nathan Dickey, “The Golgotha Chainsaw Massacre: A Rambling Commentary on ‘The Passion of the Christ’,” The Journeyman Heretic (blog) 13 June 2012, http://journeymanheretic.blogspot.com/2012/06/golgotha-chainsaw-massacre-rambling.html (accessed 16 July 2012).

4. TheFreeLibrary.com, “Poll Finds ‘The Passion of the Christ’ Boosts People's Bible-Reading Habits; More Than 12,000 People Take Zondervan/ Beliefnet.com Poll,” PR Newswire 31 March 2004, http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Poll+Finds+%27The+Passion+of+the+Christ%27+Boosts+People%27s+Bible-Reading...-a0114780523 (accessed 16 July 2012).

5. Robert K. Johnston, Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 31-37.

6. Philo, On the Life of Moses, in Philo Volume VI: On the Life of Moses, ed. G.P. Goold; trans. F.H. Colson (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994). In broad outline, Philo’s Life of Moses is to DeMille’s Ten Commandments what Emmerich’s The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ is to Gibson’s Passion of the Christ.

7. See especially Josephus, Against Apion, in Josephus Volume I: Against Apion, trans. H.St.J. Thackeray (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1966).

8. Dorothy Clarke Wilson, Prince of Egypt (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1949); Arthur E. Southon, On Eagle’s Wings (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1939); J.H. Ingraham, The Pillar of Fire, or Israel in Bondage (Philadelphia: G.G. Evans, 1860). Also, a novelization based directly on the earlier 1923 silent version of DeMille's movie itself was written by Jeanie MacPherson and Henry MacMahon (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1924). See also Melanie J. Wright, Moses in America: The Cultural Uses of Biblical Narrative (Oxford, UK and New York: Oxford University Press, 2003) and Brian Britt, Rewriting Moses: The Narrative Eclipse of the Text (London and New York: T&T Clark International, 2004).

9. Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews Preface, in William Whiston, A.M. (trans.), The Complete Works of Flavius Josephus, the Celebrated Jewish Historian (Chicago: Thompson & Thomas, 1900).

10. Ibid., Antiquities Book II, Chapter 9.

11. Michael Moorcock, Behold the Man (London: Allison & Busby, 1969).

12. Bruce Babington and Peter William Evans, Biblical Epics: Sacred Narrative in the Hollywood Cinema (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1993), p. 127.

13. Robert M. Price, Jesus Christ Superstar: The Making of a Modern Gospel (Published in eBook format by eBookIt.com, 2011), p. 16.

14. Gerald E. Forshey, American Religious and Biblical Spectaculars (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1992), p. 84.

15. Babington and Evans, Biblical Epics, p. 126.

16. Randall Balmer, Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey Into the Evangelical Subculture in America (Oxford, UK; New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 65.