Christianity in the News, Part One: Jesus on the Rocks
It’s just as well, because as a tireless religion watcher, I’ve needed an excuse to write about the news lately. I guess today’s the day. Let’s get started.
Surely it’s no accident that the past few weeks during Lent have seen not one, but two widely-promulgated news stories bearing on the New Testament. The first, and weirdest, is the study that’s summarized on a thousand websites as “Scientist Says Jesus Walked On Ice.” The second is the much-ballyhooed publication of The Gospel of Judas—most of said ballyhooing being conducted by The National Geographic Channel, which has a nicely timed special on the topic. And of course, the Netscape/AOL-hyped version of the story tends to bear headlines like “Newly Discovered Gospel Tells Judas’s Side of the Story.”
Let’s take the silliest one first, because it’s more interesting than even its own promulgators realize. Doron Nof, a scientist in oceanography at Florida State (Hey! I know that place!) has done computer modeling and has theorized that in the Gospel story, conditions could have been such that the Sea of Galilee was partially frozen, and that the miracle of Jesus walking on the water has a perfectly sound scientific explanation. The Netscape link to the article was “Did Jesus Walk on Ice?”
Well, no. Of course not. This is the kind of well-meaning idiocy that has seen a thousand deaths and rebirths since the Enlightenment—a scientist, treading on a topic he knows little about, proffers a bridge between science and religion that pleases neither side. Religious people are going to believe in the miracle, because if you take away the miracle you’ve removed everything that’s actually interesting about the story. And skeptics, presented with this dumbass theory, are going to have to ask themselves, “What’s more likely—that the book of Matthew is scrupulously historical and yet ignorant of the concept of ice, or that the whole story’s made up and doesn’t require a scientific explanation in the first place?” Meanwhile, actual practicing scientists everywhere must be slapping their foreheads and going, “I can’t believe that jerkoff used hard-earned grant money on something so pointless!” At the next Oceanography Convention, I predict he’s gonna get his ass kicked in the parking lot.
The reason I even dignify this with attention is because it raises two interesting side issues.
The first is that Christianity—at least as it was practiced in the evangelical churches I grew up in—has actually absorbed more scandalous scientific thinking than they recognize. When The Fundamentals was being published at the turn of the century, the conservative literalist scholars behind it were seeking to uphold the integrity of the Bible’s “plain meaning,” in the face of Darwin, and they pronounced anathema on all the liberal theologians who were trying to scientifically explain away the Bible’s miracles. And yet in many cases, this “explaining away” has become part of the mainstream story, even for fundamentalists. I haven’t found a single Old Testament commentary from a conservative publisher that doesn’t suggest—or at least give polite lip service to the idea—that the “manna from heaven” in Genesis might have been tamarisk resin or a kind of lichen, both of which reportedly have the evanescent qualities described in the Bible. Every commentary on the plagues of Egypt (which, by the way, are only an hour away on my TV! Go, Charlton!) mentions that the Nile river didn’t actually turn to blood, but probably experienced a “red tide” caused by certain algae or lichen. (Again with the lichen!) And pretty much every commentator who writes about the story of Elijah suggests that the “fire from heaven” that God sent to consume a huge pile of oxen was actually lightning.
But that’s liberal talk! The fundies in 1905 would have been scandalized by the way modern evangelicals carry on. They would have said (and did say), “God can turn the Nile to actual blood if he wants to, and fie on you for questioning this miracle!” You don’t need to “explain” manna—you just believe it! Why should Christians make excuses for the Bible? Why are modern evangelicals such sellouts?
The answer, of course, is twofold: First, science won. Even for evangelicals, it’s the first step in any explanation when they’re presented with something puzzling. Even the most absurd beliefs in Christendom—such as the idea that the sun stood frozen for a whole day—tend to be propped up in Christian circles by urban-mythical stories of scientist so-and-so who tried to disprove x but found y instead and now we can all feel better believing the Bible. Thank god for scientists who convert! Even for evangelicals, the Bible is often the logical problem, and science is the first resort for a solution. Blind faith comes second.
This leads to the second reason modern conservative Christians are sellouts: they’re trying to convert others. They need more members if they’re ever going to save the world. And, as New Agers, UFOlogists, and other paranormalists from Mary Baker Eddy down to L. Ron Hubbard have long known, if you want to sell an idea, blind faith can’t hold a candle to a single plausible-sounding pseudoscientific justification. After all, there are so many religions being offered today, any one of them could be right if your only criterion were “just believe it.” What separates Mormonism from Christianity is that Christianity is not the quality of its faith, but that it’s marginally less unhistorical—or, perhaps more accurately, requires more than casual knowledge to disprove, and therefore requires a little less blind faith to swallow.
That’s why every decently educated evangelical carries with them a logical dissonance between what the Bible says and what they wish they were actually allowed to believe. Liberal Christians can simply say, “The sun standing still is a myth.” But Bible-worshiping evangelicals, committed to the Bible’s literal truth on one hand, and desperately wishing for cultural relevance on the other, have to constantly invent new ways to rationalize their discomfort away. The three choices are a.) side with the Bible, but don’t tell anyone who’ll think you’re crazy, b.) doubt the Bible, but don’t tell anyone in your church, or c.) just don’t think about it at all, and focus your attention on parts of the Bible that work for you. The third option is by far the most common.