Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Do we treat the incarnation as CGI?

Some interesting thoughts suggesting that we undermine the comfort of the incarnation when we emphasise the its miraculous nature. It's a salutary reminder. The great news is that God can be approached by us in Christ, not that the unknowable God has come even closer. Yet, is there any real comfort is John's 'symbolic portrait of Jesus' is little more than a 'full blow[n] CGI presentation' of the gospel? There is a danger that '[b]y fixating on the imagery, the underlying plot is lost.'

But what if the plot itself is supposed to show that 'God [...] fills the gap where human actors could not possibly succeed'? What if the only way God could become as approachable as John portrays was for God to come in the flesh and die for our sins? In that case, we're not dealing with CGI. This is old school filmatography where someone needs to get in the car and drive through the flaming building. And it's the Bruce Lee/Jacky Chan school of acting where there are no stunt doubles.

It's true we can learn a lot about the human condition from The X-men. But the historical factuality of Schindlers List should be a lot more sobering.


Mike L. said...

Thanks for taking note of my post. By understanding the incarnation as a mythical story, to me, it saves the story. It allows the story to be taken seriously in the same way we can take a painting, a play, or a movie seriously, even though these things fictional.

If you move the story of Jesus from its normative place (myth) into the genre of historical facts, then you've set the story up for some problems. These are not problems cause by a deficiency in the story, but problems created by your choice to move it out of its intended genre. Now we're going to have to ask the kinds of questions that we ask about history. How did it happen? Why don't the facts fit together? What are the sources for the facts? Are the sources trustworthy and authentic? Are there any corroborative sources?

As a myth, the story works just fine. The data lines up, and the "more than literal" meaning lines up exactly with what we would expect from the authors who we suspect wrote the story. It wouldn't make sense to ask of a myth, "how can that be?". We don't ask how a light saber works when we watch Star Wars or how does a god like Zeus impregnate a human woman. We don't need to imagine how God became man, if we assume this is a myth created to declare the importance of Jesus to his later followers and to fit Jesus into the linage of the worlds great myths. Nobody stands up at the end of a Shakespeare play and yells, "bullshit, that never happened!".

Viewed as history, you've got your hands full answering questions. So start with these questions and let me know how you'd answer:

If you are to take this story as literal history, what does it mean to say Jesus is God incarnate? Is Jesus made up of the same atoms as God? Does he have God's brain or neural network? How about God's DNA (which means God is a physical being with DNA to pass on)? Are you using the metaphysics of Descartes, which assumes a kind of substance dualism and allows for spiritual entities apart from physical entities? If so, what is a spiritual entity? Is this a way of saying you believe in ghosts?

Do you see how the story becomes absurd when we try to read it literally?

I hope you do understand that Schindler's List, though based in part on historical people and places, is a fictional story, right? You do understand that Spielberg used actors, not actual authentic footage for the whole movie, right? You do understand that someone wrote the dialog, crafted the scenes for dramatic effect, and edited the movie to make the best "story", right? If Spielberg told you that most of the dialog never actually happened, would you assume the story is useless or any less valuable? Let's also not forget that there is plenty of camera tricks used to film that flick.

Russ said...

Hi Mike,

Thanks for your comments, and for your original post. As I said, I genuinely found it helpful to be reminded that the message being conveyed by the gospels' original authors was one of comfort, not overwhelming awe.

I appreciate your concerns with taking the accounts as history, not myth. You're not the first to raise the scientific and philosophical difficulties in claiming Jesus is, in geniune historical terms, God incarnate. I'm certainly not in a position to give you a scientific account of how Jesus' brain works. But that's at least in part because we're not given a physiology of God.

Can I turn the question around on you? I thought from your article that you believe there is a God. Otherwise the notion of God being within our reach is also little more than CGI and the contribution of the gospels are little more than a cheesy summer block buster, simply hoping that the world is a nice place and there's something in humanity that might someday lead to something good.

But if there is actually a God, then what atoms is God made of? Does God have a brain or a neural network? Or else we are talking about an entity that is spiritual (though I wouldn't think Descartes was the first to make that claim)?

On the question of whether the gospel writers thought they were writing history, can I recommend Richard Bauckham's Jesus and the Eyewitnesses? He puts the case that authors like Luke and Mark really did claim to be recording what they heard and saw, and not mere mythology. Conventions they used in their writing and their concern to name many incidental characters all point to a conviction that they were writing history.

So we can reject their accounts because we don't believe they could have happened. But treating their accounts as myths would be ignoring their intention as authors.

Russ said...

PS. Apologies for not replying or at least publishing your comment sooner. I didn't receive a notification email and only just happened upon it.

Mike L. said...

Thanks Russ,

I have 2 problems (atleast) with declaring that I "believe in God".

The first is a problem created by the word "believe". For many, this means an intellectual ability to claim certainty (or strong level of confidence) in something that is contrary to the evidence (or lacking in evidence). The modern era was plagued with claims of certainty in areas it couldn't be certain, over steeping the bounds of reason.

The second problem is with the word "God". It has to many definitions to simple claim confidence in the word without a long string of qualifications about the definition.

So, it isn't that I don't believe in God, but that I'm reluctant to be so arrogant that I can be confident in a particular definition of God. If I said, "I believe in God, but I can't define it", then what have I actually declared? I'd have said absolutely nothing. Do you see the problem? You'd have to first answer your questions about God's physical make-up (or define what a spiritual existence actually is) before you yourself could claim you actually believe in God. To say you believe in God, means to say you believe one definition is right and others are wrong.

I guess I'm a bit of an agnostic about things when I can't produce evidence or drawn a logical conclusion. Mine is not an agnosticism out of a rejection of God, but out of humility in my own human understanding and a realization that language is tenuous. Saying that I'm agnostic is not a criticism of God, it's a criticism of me.

About the authors of scripture... are you claiming that the apostles Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are the authors of those books? If so, that is a very narrow view. I don't know many people outside extreme fundamentalism who would try to make that claim. The widely accepted historical answer is that those books were authored long after the death of those apostles.

Russ said...

Hi Mike,

Apologies again for a long absence. I only get time to do this occasionally.

I appreciate your pursuit of intellectual humility. The only reason I venture to claim some certainty is because the God portrayed in the Bible is one who acts by speaking, suggesting that he may be able to communicate clearly to us, even if we can't communicate clearly to each other.

Regarding the "authors of scripture", I think you'd be better reading Baukham on that one. His argument is that the texts we have are self-consciously historical accounts. And he also argues that there is just not sufficient time for the claimed "mythology" around Jesus to have developed, even when we find a later dating plausible. (There's a similar argument on The Sacred Page.) Whether those authors were Matthew, Mark, Luke and John is a secondary issue (though I'm still to be convinced I need to be skeptical).

For the record, I'm currently working through Brian McLaren's Generous Orthodoxy so will keep listening to him and ask myself if I'm being too arrogant.

Thanks for continuing the conversation.