Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Geek's Guide to Being One-Sided

In the latest episode of The Geek's Guide to the Galaxy (a podcast that I normally enjoy because I'm a geek) two "experts" in the Bible (Robert Price and Richard Carrier) joined David Barr Kirtley to discuss the new Ridley Scott film Exodus: Gods and Kings. I was interested in what these "experts" (one of them a former baptist minister/member of the Jesus Seminar, and the other a humanistic expert in Roman history) would say about the movie. I shouldn't have been surprised to hear that the experts they called in were unbelievers who consider the entire Exodus narrative to be total myth.

Pick a Side!
In some places, this bias is helpful and even welcome. In particular, when it comes to discussing the film's curious relationship with rationalism, Carrier and Price observe (helpfully, I think) that Ridley Scott's decision to try to follow the narrative of the Bible, but with a naturalistic slant hurts the film's overall narrative and doesn't even end up making scientific sense. As they observe (rightly), it's better for somebody to decide whether they're going to portray the events as the text portrays them or don't portray them at all. Instead, Scott tries to do what Price and Carrier refer to as the 20th century Protestant Rationalist thing by saying that the events happened but can all be traced to naturalistic causes (49:30). As naturalists, they mock and laugh at the liberal approach that wants to offer a glib hat-tip to the Bible but also have a philosophical sophistication that will appeal to the modern scientifically minded person (liberals end up doing neither, of course).

The Gullible Ancients
If you've listened to the episode and you know me, then you will perhaps guess that I was far less impressed with the rest of the discussion. Early in the episode, Carrier talks about whether there even would have been naturalistic thinkers in 1300 BC Egypt. He presumes ancient people to be tremendously naive when he says that the average person would be prone to believe claims of people who said they spoke with God: "The average person on the street would be like, 'Oh you saw God and he spoke to you? That must be for real!' That was the order of things" (8:00-9:30). The narrative, of course, presumes that the actual people Moses is speaking to will not believe him. "But behold, they will not believe me or listen to my voice, for they will say, 'The LORD did not appear to you'" (Ex. 4:1). Why would Moses have a concern that he will be met with skepticism if the people were so naive and prone to believe anyone who claimed to have a word from God? The most obvious answer is that the people Moses was speaking to were far less naive than would serve Carrier's purposes. Richard Carrier simplifies the mindset of the ancient people turning them into a manageable caricature, but one far more gullible than Moses himself knows them to be in the context of the narrative.

Of course, the problem with Carrier is ultimately foundational. In his mind the text itself cannot be offered as evidence that the people were not gullible since only a gullible person would believe that these people were not gullible. Carrier, however, as a perfect example of gullibility himself, doesn't see anything naive in his own unprovable anti-supernaturalistic foundational assumptions which preclude the text as evidence of anything.

Constant Smug Laughter
Subjectively speaking, what really bothered me about the discussion was the smugly dismissive way that Carrier in particular laughed throughout the episode whenever Price or Kirtley would bring up those who actually believe that these events took place. Near the beginning of the episode Carrier laughs off the film as horrible history since there was no evidence that the Hebrews ever even lived in Egypt (6:50). "That's just something that was made up in Jewish literature centuries later." Later, Carrier almost seems unable to control his laughter even at the thought that somebody might actually believe the Exodus narrative to be historical. Kirtley asks if it would be possible to make a movie of the Exodus where God comes off as heroic instead of as a scary monster, which again causes Carrier to giggle extensively. Because he doesn't see God as heroic, he chooses to laugh at anybody who can see God as heroic in Exodus (36:00). His laughter reaches an almost fever pitch when they discuss why on earth people would need to place lamb's blood over the doors if God is all-powerful. Why require lamb's blood when God could just by fiat decide not to kill the Israelite children? Of course, any possible answer to this doesn't even seem cross their minds. I suspect that they know that it could conceivably make sense that God would require people to perform gestures for both didactic and symbolic reasons, but again - that isn't as funny and doesn't make them look as smart.

The Inconsistent Irrationality of Pharaoh
Price and Carrier don't use equal weights and measures in their complaints about the Exodus narrative. For instance, at one point Price complains that Pharaoh is made by God to be "irrationally stubborn" (32:40) in the Exodus narrative, but then he argues that Pharaoh's refusal to give the Israelites straw to make bricks is irrational (45:50). He offers this irrationality of refusing to help the Israelites make bricks as evidence that there is nothing remotely historical about the narrative. One wonders how it is possible for Pharaoh to be acknowledged as "irrationally stubborn" and then have his irrationality criticized as nonsensical. Price would like to have it both ways, of course: Pharaoh is irrational through and through, yet he clearly can't be real because he behaves irrationally toward the Israelites.

Listening to the Other Side?
Later in the podcast, Kirtley asks his panel members how religious believers reconcile God killing "innocent children" during the final plague against Egypt. The answers they give are all caricatures. They seem to not know how "religious people now explain it." Carrier himself admits that he has no idea how real believing interpreters deal with the text. It's at this point that I just paused the narrative and said to myself, "This is the part where they will now make up unfair, simplistic, ludicrous explanations and then attribute them to people who believe these events to be historical." (By the way, if I find the time, I may offer a post where I mention some of the views that Carrier and Price failed to consider, but that is not my purpose here.)

Carrier, to begin with suggests that some with a "medieval mindset" would see the death of the Egyptian children as just recompense for the Pharaoh's own murder of the Israelite boys in Exodus 1:22. Unable to come up with anything better, he passes the baton to Price, who admits to having "never actually heard them wrestle with it" (32:50). This is curious, of course, since Price supposedly spent years involved in apologetics and even had a degree in systematic theology. And during his "orthodox years" he never once wrestled with this question or heard anyone else wrestle with it? Rather than deal with anybody's actual approach to the narrative Price takes the opportunity to opine on the subject of hell and then talk about how the Bible's narrative doesn't make sense to him. It would be more honest for them to simply say, "I am a supposed expert in systematic theology, but I'm not open minded enough to read believing commentators on this passage, so I can't answer your question."

Concluding Thoughts: A Plea for Fairness
I definitely think that this episode of Geek's Guide to the Galaxy would have been far fairer and way more interesting to have a fair-minded Christian or Jewish theist who isn't a screaming fire breather and would be willing to offer their own side of the discussion. I can think of believing experts who are also movie lovers and would be eager to engage in such a discussion in a winsome way. Instead, GGG decided to turn the discussion over to two naturalists who see the Exodus narrative as myth and aren't even experts in the Old Testament. In the process they missed out on the chance to be exposed to the opinion of someone who approaches the Old Testament far less combatively.

1 comment:

  1. Another of the numerous and fine examples of the deleterious effects of chronological snobbery.


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