At Xavier University, everyone has to take a course called Theological Foundations. Theo 111. Instructors receive some general goals and objectives of the course from the Department of Theology, but the design of it is really up to each individual prof. At any one time, you could have 20 different sections of the course going simultaneously. I find that this is one of the strengths of the department: while everyone is required to take the class, there are a variety of options to help each student find the one right for them.
After a three year hiatus from teaching the class–last semester I taught Christian Doctrine I–I am back with a new subtitle for my Theo 111: God From the Margins. We began the class with an examination of the Book of Exodus. Last week while I was out for my doctoral seminars, we did our class units online. I had them watch two documentaries and then write a paper. We began the discussion today.
The first documentary is James Cameron’s The Exodus Decoded, which is even worse than you might think it is; the entire film is like two-hour clickbait. You’ll never believe what happened next!
The film is genius, though, in representing a fundamental problem we face in our society: the devaluing of the expert and the attenuating anti-intellectualism that soon becomes normalized. To wit, the very title of the documentary harkens to Dr. Robert Langdon and symbology, a totally made up field that apparently enough people thought was real to justify the writing of this article.
Treating the Exodus like The DaVinci Code just doesn’t work out well for anyone.
James Cameron and his partner Simcha Jacobovici, an investigative journalist, believe that their “outsider status” will help them to see past the limited orthodoxy of traditional scholarship and present–for the first time ever!–the true story of the Exodus. Indeed, they believe that the discussion is between those scholars who believe the Exodus is fact, and those who regard it as a fairy tale.
Now, I gotta tell you that I just about have a stroke any time I hear someone say something this demonstrably false. It is something Trump would say. First, myth is the most ancient form of literature. Period. Oral storytelling and written language both begin with myth. Myths function on many levels, but in the main we can say that myths attempt to bring order out of chaos. In the deep, seemingly ceaseless mystery that is life itself, we require answers. We want to know who we are, where we came from, the purpose of life, the meaning of death, the possibilities of immortality; on some level, we human beings have been asking these questions–and more–and answering them through mytho-poetic language.
Fucking fairy tales don’t come along until the 17th century.
So while Cameron and Jacobivici interview scholars for this film, they undercut the scholarship with a wink and nod; when an Egyptologist says, We cannot just start moving events hither and yon; 10 years in one direction or the other is the most we can change dates, the esteemed filmmakers go ahead and move the dating of the Stele of Ahmose 100 years, and conflate an event in which people were expelled violently to the exodus of the Hebrews. In so doing, they have “proved” that the exodus happened in 1500 BCE, something those silly scholars couldn’t realize, but our plucky duo, with only a tube of chapstick and a dance belt, have managed to decode one of the greatest ancient mysteries. Yay! (I encourage you to watch only the first 10 minutes of the documentary, and then cleanse yourself with this erudite, documented, reasoned rebuttal.)
So why have my students watch something patently false? Well, I then had them watch National Geographic‘s The Exodus Revealed to see how science and faith can be treated responsibly, without each side feeling their disciplines have been cheapened. I see the comparison as a microcosm of what’s been happening in religion (and public conversations about expertise) since the European Enlightenment. Take, for example, the Jefferson Bible. Thomas Jefferson employed the same basic philosophy that propelled Higher Biblical Criticism, primarily in Germany: that is, the Bible should be treated as any other text, and approached from a wide variety of perspectives. Such biblical criticism examines language, redaction, historical context, literature types, archeological evidence, theories regarding transmission, theological hermeneutics shaping the text, and a whole host of other details. Jefferson cuts to the quick by excising references to the miracles, Jesus’ divinity, and any other supernatural elements. Indeed, the proper title of the work is The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. Interestingly, a copy of this was given to members of Congress until the 1950s, with the practice periodically resurrected. There is debate regarding when it began. For Jefferson, Jesus was a philosopher; his Bible thin, but filled with wisdom.
Meanwhile, there was an equal and opposite reaction in both Europe and the Colonies. With Enlightenment principles suffusing the founding principles of our republic and mandating a separation of Church and State, a distinct brand of anti-intellectualism began to gain steam. Dedicated study of the Bible, placing it on the level of Homer’s Odyssey or the Vedas, was seen as sacrilege; such endeavors were the tools of the ruling elite meant to pull God out of the hearts and minds of the average person. Biblical literalism emerged as the viable alternative; this made it accessible to everyman: while a scholar has to read thousands upon thousands of pages to gain even a modicum of expertise in the field, the literalist need only read the Bible for its plain meaning. It is either fact or it is a fairy tale.
Science cannot be removed from the equation completely, though. Nope. Not for those who have a disdain for scholarship and intellectual rigor. If the Bible is inerrant, then it must be science that is wrong; move a few decades here or there is essentially the same thing as moving a few millennia here or there. That may seem hyperbolic, but it isn’t.* They play fast and loose with details that have been meticulously researched and discussed for decades by hundreds of exhaustively-educated scholars. Seriously. I could not cut it as a biblical scholar, at least not on the level of my colleagues. I am a pastoral theologian with significant training in biblical scholarship, and I have published peer-reviewed articles and a book on one specific text: the Gospel of Mark. Egyptologists, Hebrew Bible and New Testament scholars have language training and expertise that I couldn’t achieve.
The Exodus Decoded sets forth notions that have been debunked by scholars, but one will only know it if one bothers to read. So they present a “scientific explanation” to the exodus that gives fuel to the literalist who wants to play scientist and biblical scholar. They do not hold themselves to the scientific method, but require that any critics have as their base assumption the infallibility of the Bible. One can see how literalism and anti-intellectualism merge to form quasi-scholars, misinformed as they may be. The lack of universal, reasonable standards means that one can just shape any evidence to fit the thesis rather than developing the thesis based upon the evidence. Exhibit one: Ken Ham.
This phenomenon, in a nutshell, is the same as that going on in response to Trump’s Executive Order regarding Muslims.
Stay with me on this, please. Above the argument is this: the Bible is being made too complicated by a bunch of elite scholars who wish to convince you that you can never know God; Scripture is either fact or fairy tale. We know it’s fact, proponents say with a wink and a nod, so here’s so wildly dubious “evidence” to use, and you just go in there and demand that you be heard in the discussion. And when people ask you if you have read the established scholarship, denounce it as propaganda. Demand that your own evidence be considered, but don’t allow them to point to the already established scholarship. It is tainted. Because you are not brainwashed by the Academy, you can see the pieces fit together, so go right ahead and condescend to those who oppose you.
For Trump, it is this: those who say that Muslims from the 7 targeted countries have no reason to be targeted, given that there is zero evidence of any attack after 1975, are ruling elites who don’t understand the real situation. They are too stupid and politically correct to see that terrorists skip generations. They are already here and our inept government has not a clue! Haven’t you ever seen 24? We’ve gotta give Jack Bauer the help he needs in order to get a hold on this elusive terrorist threat. It doesn’t matter that people from all political perspectives who are experts in terrorism prevention are denouncing the move; it doesn’t matter that this sort of one-sided action, with no consultation with the legislative branch, is the mark of the insidious, dictatorial power President Obama was accused of wielding by the very people who elected Trump. None of it matters because truth is simple, clear, and brutal.
God wrote it, I believe it, that settles it. Muslims are terrorists because terrorists are Muslims.
Trump has already displayed an open disdain for intelligence experts; he has sided with Russia as it concerns the most recent presidential election, but he has already launched an investigation into the patently false, delusional claim that 3 million “illegals” (seriously; how is a person illegal?) voted, hence why Der Fewer lost the popular vote. His supporters believe that the media is biased and untrustworthy, largely because it does not support their guttural assessments of complex problems; it is easier to believe that minorities and immigrants are draining the government of resources than it is to acknowledge that other white men in positions of power have betrayed them, and that the forces of capitalism have long since become more protected by law than are individual rights; or that there is anything of worth to be found in academia. They do not believe themselves to be ignorant because there are enough sources that have elbowed their way into mainstream discussions that they are accorded the, “you have to consider the other side.” It has happened with Intelligent Design, despite it being smacked down by a Bush-appointed judge. It happened with the Tea Party claims of death panels, President Obama’s citizenship, sharia law in the United States, and a whole host of other nonsensical issues that have conspired to give mendacious lies equal weight with learned considerings.
Trump’s ban on Muslims–and don’t try to convince me it is otherwise, for the president himself said during the campaign that he would call for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims” (yeah, that’s from his own website)–feeds well into the Jack Bauer school of counterterrorism: based on intelligence information known by only a few, we must act swiftly and without political correctness to make the people safe. It is only softhearted and softheaded academics who will get in the way, but the real American patriots don’t have time for that; the threat is right among us, hiding in plain sight. And that threat is always Muslim and always brown- or black-skinned, despite all actual evidence to the contrary.
Clearly, this analysis is not exhaustive or definitive; I do not claim it to be so, but the progressions and developments are there for anyone to see. In the majority religion of this country, Christianity, the most popular and influential expression is decidedly anti-intellectual; it elevates social wedge issues by providing dubious scientific evidence that is used by adherents to distract and frustrate legitimate scholars (that Neil DeGrasse Tyson should be expected to answer someone like Ken Ham is downright lamentable); and it supports politicians who gleefully declare themselves “deplorable” and promise to rule as an id, proudly devoid of an ego or superego. The rest of us are seen as threats to the faith.
The truth is, the sort of ideas dominating in the religion and politics which have assisted and empowered Trump perish in academia not because of liberal bias; they don’t flourish because they are terrible ideas. The irony is that the scientific method itself prevents the very things that Trump and his ilk fear: ideology tainting or polluting facts. Any academic field worth its salt is based upon rigorous testing and verification, and includes voices from a wide variety of perspectives to deepen understanding. Without question, academia is imperfect. There are certainly prejudices and faults, but these often are exposed by people who believe in the pursuit of pure knowledge. Academia has put forth some awful ideas, to be sure; but invariably, they are rooted out because they cannot survive continued testing. If you want to eliminate, or at least reduce, ideology, subject the ideas to peer-review.
We find ourself in a place and time in which we have normalized willful ignorance, rewarding it with equal consideration to expertise; we decry the “political correctness” of calling racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and all manner of prejudices by their proper names–it ain’t Alt-Right, it’s Nazism–yet we accept the notion that it is elitist to say “you must know at least this much to enter this conversation.” Our president has only a passing relationship with facts, providing all the validation followers need to continue their assault on ideas at the expense of the most vulnerable in our society.
*The Exodus Decoded can be turned into a drinking game only if we want cases of alcohol poisoning, and there need be only one rule: drink each time some for of “it has always been a mystery, UNTIL NOW” is uttered. You’ll be shitcanned by the fourth plague.