Documentary Questions the Existence of Jesus

Times Staff Writer

Brian Flemming's "Bat Boy: The Musical" was praised by critics but appalled some fundamentalists with its references to incest and other dark themes. Flemming's latest project is just as likely to disturb conservative Christians.

The 39-year-old Angeleno has made an hourlong documentary titled "The God Who Wasn't There." In it, the former born-again Christian argues that the biblical Jesus never lived, but is a mythological figure like Paul Bunyan.

Initially released theatrically June 17, the documentary grew out of Flemming's research for a fictional thriller-in-progress titled, "The Beast." In that film, which he hopes to release next year, a teenage Christian discovers that the Jesus she fervently believes in never existed.

"My position is that's the most likely scenario," the filmmaker said.

Asked why he chose to question Jesus' existence instead of his divinity, Flemming said: "I think that the idea that an individual could be the son of a god is already so ridiculous it doesn't need to be debunked."

To promote the movie, Flemming places it squarely in the company of other headline-making exposes: " 'Bowling for Columbine' did it to the gun culture. 'Super Size Me' did it to fast food. Now 'The God Who Wasn't There' does it to religion.... Hold on to your faith. It's in for a bumpy ride."

Made for less than $100,000, with jazzy graphics and David Byrne remixed on the soundtrack, the documentary includes a montage of images from a 1905 silent movie on the life of Christ and the 1952 miniseries "The Living Bible."

Wielding his own camera, Flemming interviews believers outside a Billy Graham event and talks with academics who argue that the Jesus of the Gospels did not live 2,000 years ago in what is now Israel.

Flemming also returns to the campus of the Sun Valley Christian school where, he said, he accepted Christ as his personal savior. The school superintendent walks out mid-interview.

If that makes the documentary sound, to believers, like the evil twin of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," that's fine with Flemming.

To get attention for his movie, he is mimicking Gibson, who generated word of mouth for his controversial film about the Crucifixion by screening it first for Christian groups.

Flemming is encouraging skeptics groups and others to show his movie, allowing them to keep any profits once they purchase the DVD. It goes on sale Tuesday (its website is www.thegodmovie.com).

Flemming will screen and talk about the film Sunday at 11 a.m. in the Center for Inquiry-West's Steve Allen Theater, 4773 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. The secular humanist organization will repeat the program at 4:30 p.m. at the Costa Mesa Community Center, 1845 Park Ave. (Admission is $6 for nonmembers, free for members.)

With his parents, the young Flemming attended a Methodist church. But, he said, his parents were concerned about violence in the Sylmar public schools and sent him to a nearby fundamentalist Christian school. There, he said, he believed his teachers when they said that God created the world in six days and other Bible-based lessons.

But those beliefs crumbled when he went to UC Irvine and began studying philosophy and science.

"I am not one of those atheists who has a big conversion story," he said. "It took me a while to call myself an atheist, because it was drummed into me that was such a bad thing to be."

What Flemming learned at a secular university convinced him that his fundamentalist teachers had "misrepresented what evolution was" and distorted other truths to bolster their Christian faith.

It is "frightening to me that children get indoctrinated in it," he said.

Chris Leland, a spokesman for the Focus on the Family Institute, an educational unit of the evangelical Christian organization, has seen the film and decries the scholarship that Flemming uses to argue against a historic Jesus.

"Some of the original premises of the film are shallowly researched," Leland said. "It ignores an enormous range of Jewish research on a person called Jesus, archeological confirmations ... as well as other external historical documents."

One of the people arguing on screen for questioning belief is neuroscientist Sam Harris, author of "The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason." An atheist, Harris praised the film for challenging what he regards as a maladaptive taboo in contemporary society -- against asking people of faith to present evidence for their contentions.

"We allow people to make the most extraordinary claims without giving evidence," Harris said. "It's considered uncivil to criticize people's religious certainties.... Whether Jesus existed or not, we need to criticize people's false certainties."

Father Thomas Rausch, a Jesuit priest and professor of theology at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, has not seen the film. But, he said, "I don't know any serious scholar who questions the existence of Jesus."

According to Rausch, the best evidence that Jesus lived comes from the ancient Jewish writer and historian Josephus, particularly a passage in his "The Jewish Antiquities," dating from about AD 95. Some material in Josephus was probably added to the original text by Christians to bolster the young religion.

But, Rausch said, most scholars accept as authentic Josephus' description of a wise teacher called Jesus who did "startling deeds" and "gained a following among many Jews and many of Greek origin," according to one translation, and was condemned to the cross.

Historian Richard Carrier, the atheist author of "Sense and Goodness Without God," said he had been "agnostic" about the existence of Jesus until Flemming interviewed him for the film. Now, he said, "I think that more likely than not, Jesus did not exist."

Carrier has come to doubt that Josephus wrote a word of the key passage about Jesus, known among scholars as the Testimonium Flavianum. Carrier was swayed by a mass of circumstantial evidence, including early Christian theologian Origen's citing Josephus but not that passage.

Whether or not the film changes anyone's mind, some skeptics see the movie as a welcome call for reason and against blind faith. Ford Vox heads the Universist Movement, whose 8,000 members describe themselves as "faithless."

"We emphasize free inquiry rather than the nonexistence of God," said Vox, a medical student who founded the group in Birmingham, Ala., in 2003.

The Universists sponsored the film's Southern premiere in Birmingham and its New York City opening. Vox said he believes the movie communicates a healthy skepticism about Christianity.

He said religion is dangerous in that it often encourages "absolutist, black-and-white thinking" that allows people to dehumanize and demonize those who don't share their beliefs.

Flemming, aware of the irony that the fundamentalist faith he rejected fuels much of his work, said he gets "a lot of e-mail that ranges from utterly hateful to 'I want to save your soul.' "

The filmmaker said he has "no lingering resentment" about his parents sending him to a fundamentalist school. And making "The God Who Wasn't There," especially the sequence in the school chapel, was "very cathartic," he said. "I'm finally done with that whole period of my life, and I can move on."

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