“You’d think if you were one of Christ’s biographers, [the virgin birth] would be sort of an important thing not to leave out. Oh, God, he was also born of a virgin. They don’t notice the virgin birth. You know, I think that is something if you were any sort of reporter you’d put into the story. What editor looks at the facts and goes, ‘Yeah, but take out the thing about the virgin birth. That’s not interesting.’”
This is one of Bill Maher’s quotes in the docu/mockumentary Religulous. I already mentioned this film in a previous post (Religulous in Barcelona), but I wanted to examine it a bit further. So I made a video compilation that tries to reveal some of its prejudices on religion and religious people.
Click the following to watch the movie A closer look at Religulous:
(for a transcript of the video, including dialogues – click here;
voor een Nederlandstalige transcriptie van de video zonder de dialogen, klik hier)
CLICK TO WATCH:
One of the main prejudices is the idea that the way biblical stories are written, is comparable to the way we write history in modern times. Hence Bill Maher’s above mentioned remark on the birth of Jesus. He clearly expects the two stories about the birth of Jesus (in Matthew and Luke) to contain historical ‘facts’ in the modern sense, or at least he believes that’s what they claim. In that sense he imitates his religious counterparts – who are fundamentalists –, and he reads the Bible like they do. He just comes to different conclusions.
Moreover, in trying to differ himself from his adversaries, Bill Maher seems to resemble them more and more. The ‘final solution’ he proposes to solve the problem of violent religious groups says it all: “The plain fact is, religion must die for mankind to live.” He makes religion (and religious people?) overall an enemy for mankind, and considers it as the source of all evil. He believes that getting rid of that source (sacrificing religion) will ‘save’ us and will lead us to a better, ‘paradisiac’ future (remember John Lennon and his song Imagine, with the line ‘and no religion too’?). Well, ‘getting rid of it’ is exactly what some of his religious counterparts believe must happen to ‘secularism’ and ‘infidels’. History shows that the battle for the so-called ‘ultimate Truth’, for ‘Paradise’ and ‘Peace’, be it claimed by religionists or secularists, always ends in bloodshed… An atheist like Stalin, who violently oppressed Christianity in the Soviet Union, really is a ‘mimetic double’ (as René Girard would call it) to some of his dictatorial religious predecessors. Indeed his actions are a mimesis (i.e. imitation) of the so-called evil enemy he’s trying to destroy, and by doing so he regenerates this evil. He maintains violence, because he tries to destroy the possibility of violence by violent means…
The question is whether there’s a way out of the dilemma created by the opposition between ‘radical secularism’ and ‘religious fundamentalism’. I think there is. I think we need to educate ourselves in becoming ‘spiritually literate’. E.g. concerning the question how to read the Bible, more specifically the stories about the birth of Jesus, I’d like Bill Maher and his religious counterparts to consider the following observations.
The two stories about the birth of Jesus don’t ‘match’. Matthew’s story is very different from the one by Luke. For example, the story in the Gospel of Matthew begins in Bethlehem and ends in Nazareth, while the story in the Gospel of Luke begins in Nazareth and ends in Bethlehem. If the compilers of the New Testament would have considered these stories conveying historical facts as we understand them, then they probably would have chosen one of the two and not both of them. Disparate reports on the birth of the Jesus you’re trying to ‘sell’ to the outside world just don’t add to the credibility of your story… Unless, of course, those disparate reports are not historical in the modern sense of the word. I do believe the stories on the birth of Jesus try to express something about the historical experience of people with Jesus, but the stories themselves are not ‘historical’. They are comparable to ‘poetic’ expressions. For example, Jesus was experienced as a liberator by many people, in one way or another. He freed people from oppression, social exclusion, anxieties, … As said, I believe this personal experience of the ones who knew Jesus is real, is historical. However, to express this experience, people turned to well-known mythological images and stories, ‘formulas’ one could say. Hence Matthew and Luke portray Jesus in typical stories which their audience understands as conveying the personal, experiential and historical truth that Jesus is a savior and liberator, comparable – in some ways at least – to the prophet Moses, or to king David.
Sometimes the poetic and mythological images used to express a certain experience will contradict each other, but this doesn’t mean that they exclude each other. They may simply refer to other experiences, or to different aspects of the same experience. A contemporary example may clarify this. Many songs in the English speaking world make use of ‘the car’ or ‘the road’, and everything associated with them, as metaphors to express different (aspects of) life experiences. In the song It’s my life Bon Jovi sings “It’s my life, my heart is like the open highway…” to express he feels free, or that he desires to be free. His heart is, of course, not literally a highway. Meat Loaf, on the other hand, expresses the longing for freedom slightly differently, in his song Objects in the rear view mirror, may appear closer than they are: “And if life is just a highway, then the soul is just a car…” It’s no use asking who is ‘correct’, Bon Jovi or Meat Loaf. It’s no use asking: “Well, now, is the heart a highway, or is life a highway?” We understand these somewhat conflicting images and the common experience they refer to, because we are part of the culture which uses them… Both the experience of Bon Jovi and Meat Loaf is true and historical, albeit personal. And the image of the road or the highway is omnipresent. James Hetfield, of heavy metal band Metallica, sings “And the road becomes my bride…” in the song Wherever I may roam… Once again, not to be taken literally, but we normally understand what he’s referring to.
It’s a bit more difficult to understand the images used two thousand years ago, so we might need to study to get there. Considering the ‘false’, but often vehement conflict between ‘secularists’ and ‘religionists’ I described above, it might be a necessary study though. Karen Armstrong traces the origins of this conflict back to the period of the Enlightenment. According to her, a confusion arose around that time in the western world concerning mythology. Mythology was considered a primitive form of science by many intellectuals of the modernist era. Hence an opposition arose between those who held on to a ‘mythological truth presented as historical fact’ and those who embraced modern science as carrying the keys to the ultimate truths about life. Research, however, points out that the modernist assumption about mythology (and science for that matter) is false. Mythology and ‘poetic images’ never functioned in the way modern science functions, even to this day…
The distinction between mythology and modern science is actually quite simple: mythology tries to express and to ‘mold’ human experiences and offer different perspectives on them, while science tries to explain human experiences. The example I give in the film to make this distinction clear, is about the mythological story of Cain and Abel. This fictitious story reveals an existential truth about our existence: sometimes we are all too heavily consumed by envy. Furthermore, it tries to answer the question what to do with these envious tendencies – where we should direct them, if it belongs to our ultimate goal to be guided by envy… These are questions which science cannot answer. Science can maybe explain how we become jealous, and that jealousy is a natural tendency in man, but it cannot answer the question whether jealousy is a good or a bad thing. This last question is an existential one, more specifically a moral one.
So, in short, there should be no conflict between modern science and mythology because they try to answer different questions. Once you realize that religion belongs to this mythological, poetic, indeed ‘spiritual’ realm which deals with existential questions, it becomes a genuine, reasonable and sensible force that undermines the certainties of every ‘ideology’ – be it religious fundamentalism or the radical atheism which opposes it, indeed ‘doubles’ it. Understood as poetic and spiritual images, religious texts open up dialogue and different perspectives on a Reality which, ultimately, is ‘not in our control’. A Reality, in other words, which ‘transcends’ us – as we didn’t create the world we inhabit.
There’s a lot more to discover on the distinction between scientific and existential questions. For example in the works of philosopher Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973), who makes a distinction between ‘problems’ that can be solved technically, ‘scientifically’, and the mysteries we are confronted with which are ultimately unsolvable (they allow for different ‘attitudes’).
To read a paper by Karen Armstrong on