"Zeitgeist the Movie": The New "Chariots of the Gods"

One of the greatest thrills of my boyhood was happening to turn on the TV one day to find that a major corporation was about to present a special program. It was so special, in fact, that the sponsor (Shell Canada—you don’t get bigger than that) would do all the advertising itself and would restrict its own commercials to a minimum.

What show deserved such extraordinary treatment? The documentary version of Erich von Däniken‘s bestseller, Chariots of the Gods.

So while the rest of my family was busy in their quotidian duties someplace else in the house, I watched the drama of the ages unfold. The earth had been visited by aliens numerous times since prehistory, and von Däniken’s team had photographed the evidence from cave wall portraits in France to gigantic landscape markings in Peru. As a science fiction fan, I was enthralled. This wasn’t just fantasy, this was history! This was archaeology! This was Truth!

Alas, it turned out that there were other, more plausible and less exciting explanations for most or all of the data presented on that show, some of which were later exposed as misrepresented in the first place. “Chariots of the Gods” soon faded from serious attention.

Now we have the Internet movie “Zeitgeist,” and for this generation it could be just as thrilling, and just as dubious, as “Chariots of the Gods”—or, for that matter, as The Da Vinci Code, whose argument it closely parallels in some chief respects.
“Zeitgeist” is two-plus hours long. It’s mostly a conspiracy film about the U.S. being controlled by “international bankers” who enslave Americans through the Federal Reserve System, an unconstitutional income tax, and more–with the ultimate objective of, yes, a One World Government. I don’t know much about these matters, so it’s pretty heady stuff to think that the world’s greatest power is run by a cabal of plutocrats.

But “Zeitgeist” oddly begins with an attack on Christianity (although only after a long, confusing, and irrelevant opening sequence). And if the rest of the film is as poorly argued as this first part, about which I do know a thing or two, I must conclude that it is merely an entertaining waste of time. (And that might be a shame, since maybe “Zeitgeist” is right at least about some of the political and financial shenanigans it depicts.)

The religious argument is an old argument indeed. Jesus Christ never existed. His story is, instead, the cynical fabrication of Roman imperial authorities and their ecclesiastical clients, starting with Constantine in the fourth century, in order to legitimate their power. And out of what did they fabricate this story? Out of Judaism, which in turn was simply an amalgam of elements borrowed (actually, “Zeitgeist” says “plagiarized”) from other ancient astrologically-focused religions, notably that of Egypt.

This argument against the legitimacy of Christianity has a genealogy stretching back behind the widely discredited agenda of contemporary apologists for Gnosticism such as Elaine Pagels, through oddballs such as John Allegro (the “sacred mushroom” guy), back to “freethinkers” in American history, such as Robert Ingersoll and Thomas Paine, with prominent articulation in Scotsman J. G. Frazer’s The Golden Bough, first published at the close of the nineteenth century.

Like von Däniken, Dan Brown, and the rest of this gang, “Zeitgeist” liberally mixes truth and error. (Picking out errors of fact in “Zeitgeist,” alas, is as easy as picking out errors in The Da Vinci Code, and shooting fish in a barrel gets boring pretty fast.) It also substitutes broad similarities for actual relationships. This sort of “argument” is the stock in trade of quacks and kooks, among which must be numbered one Jordan Maxwell, who keeps showing up in the video as an authority figure.

For instance, “Zeitgeist” says that Jesus and his twelve disciples are simply metaphors for the sun moving around with the 12 signs of the Zodiac. Well, yes, we do have a main figure and twelve secondary figures, and Jesus is called the light of the world in the New Testament. But that’s not much to go on. (And note the machine-gunning of Scripture references that follow about “light” and “darkness” and “born again”–taken wildly out of context, presented too quickly for the viewer to analyze, and some of them, once you do look them up, having not to do with Jesus but with disciples of his, thus making no sense in the “Zeitgeist” context.)

“Zeitgeist” is fascinated, in fact, by the number “12” showing up so often in the Bible. But given the single crucial fact of the twelve tribes of Israel (without the slightest connection to the twelve houses of the Zodiac), that’s rather like being amazed at the number “50” showing up in the United States: “Wow: 50 states. And 50 stars on the flag! And 50 governors! And 50 state capitols! And 100 senators, which is 50 multiplied by 2!!!” The one kinda leads naturally to all the others. No big deal there, after all.

As for parallels between the Christian celebrations of December 25 and Easter with astronomically and astrologically significant dates at the same times of year, to pick another non-amazing coincidence, a little actual history will show why indeed the church picked those dates for commemorating those events. In the former case, it was precisely to substitute celebration of Jesus as the true Light of the World for pagan celebrations of the solstice in European countries (the Bible itself gives no indication of the time of year of Jesus’ birth). In the latter case, the Bible dates Jesus’ last week to the week of Passover of the Jewish calendar, not to any celebration of springtime.

As for the idea of plagiarizing materials to construct the Old and New Testaments, let’s give that a big think. And if we do, we will be left rather breathless to consider what ancient anonymous geniuses in comparative religions could have brought all this stuff together over centuries, and to do it in such a way as to prompt belief in such an extraordinarily unlikely Saviour as the carpenter/rabbi from Galilee, with the effect of producing the world’s largest religion! If there are no actual miracles in the Bible, the Bible itself is a miracle badly in need of a better explanation than it gets in “Zeitgeist.”

British literary historian C. S. Lewis, who knew a myth when he read one, a generation or so ago pooh-poohed the idea that the four Biblical gospels were myths. No, he wrote, the four gospels read like the authors believe the events they record really happened. And since archaeology shows that they were written within a few decades of the events they depict, there was no time for a religious community to forget what had actually happened and to buy into an elaborate fabrication instead.

So the only way that “Zeitgeist” can succeed is if it works on an audience that knows tiny bits and pieces of history and religion and doesn’t know any of it well. (You mustn’t know, for just one of many examples, that former U.S. Secretary of State and three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan isn’t “William Jennings,” as the “Zeitgeist” narrator says he is. Yikes.)

But that’s precisely the condition of the vast majority of people in our society today. So no wonder this sort of argument keeps bobbing up, even after scholars of previous generations have smacked it down. Talk about your recurring myth of resurrection!

“Zeitgeist” prompts one last reflection, at least. As I watched it, I had the same sense I had when witnessing Richard Dawkins’s preposterous screed at the University of British Columbia a while ago (about which I blogged in a few posts): The people offering these mash-ups of history, philosophy, science, and religion are not stupid. They do know a lot and they can construct plausible arguments. So are Christians and the rest of us prepared adequately to respond at the same level, or higher? Do pastors and other Christian teachers preach and teach on a level to equip their audiences to recognize and see through this confusion when they encounter it?

The best response to these attacks is to simply know better, and then one just shakes one’s head and moves along. But too few of us do know better, so these arguments claim far more attention and allegiance than they deserve.

And that’s especially our fault as Christian preachers and teachers.

Let’s do something about it.

0 Responses to “"Zeitgeist the Movie": The New "Chariots of the Gods"”

  1. Maria

    Interestingly enough, Chariots of the Gods turns up as the back story of the new Indiana Jones movie. So even massively discredited conspiracy theories continue to have ongoing lives in the entertainment industry. If only viewers and readers could remember the difference between fiction and nonfiction!

  2. John Stackhouse

    Ah, Doug, you’ve cracked part of the secret code! You’re right, of course: 100 is 50 multiplied by 2. You’ve uncovered part of the plot to weaken the United States still further, reducing it from fifty states to only 25!!!

    Or something . . .

  3. dan

    I haven’t seen the movie, but I think you’re bang-on when you suggest that, if one displays shoddy scholarship in one area, then this can cause other areas of legitimate scholarship to be disregarded.

    For example, I think that this has happened in ‘evangelical’ circles with John Dominic Crossan. I think a lot of his socio-political observations — especially related to Paul and his day — are pretty bang-on. Unfortunately, he misses the boat on several other key issues (like, oh, the resurrection) and so I don’t think people are willing to give him the time of day in the areas where he exhibits strength (although the fact that the political implications of Crossan’s work would significantly challenge the political position taken by a lot of contemporary ‘evangelicals’ may also be a factor!).

    Okay. End tangent.

  4. Beth

    I’m pleasantly surprised that you wrote a blog about this… I didn’t realize this movie was so well-known! About a month ago, one of the girls I mentored at camp last summer sent me a panicked e-mail about a movie that supposedly disproved Jesus’ divinity, and she attached the transcript for the first part of “Zeitgeist”. It was great to be able to use some stuff I’ve learned at Regent (plus a good dose of common sense) to help her see some of the flaws. And it’s nice to read your take on it and see those flaws even more clearly… I especially liked what you said about the lack of explanation for the “miraculous” comparative religious conglomerate that is the Bible. 🙂 I think you’re right about Christians needing training to respond to these kinds of arguments… I’m going to have to think more about how this could happen in my ministry contexts.

  5. John Stackhouse

    Thanks for that acute observation, Dan.

    And thanks, Beth, for your comment also. I’m not sure the movie is all that well-known, however. I think your implicit inference ( “If Stackhouse knows about it, all the way up there in his ivory tower, it must be well known” ) fails to take into account the fact that I have cool kids, younger cousins, and students such as you to clue me in to stuff I would, indeed, never hear about ‘way up here! 😉

    So I hope you and others will keep passing along ideas or events for me to notice!

  6. JDB

    I have a few of questions about your post. I’ve seen Zeitgeist and I agree with your take on it – it was pretty hard to miss some of the errors.

    I’m curious whether Jesus’ existence is considered a valid question by anyone or if the majority of the academic community (religious and non) are in full agreement that the historical figure of Jesus existed. If everyone is in agreement, is this based on the study and accepted validity of the gospel accounts? Or are there other significant documents which are widely accepted as evidence of Jesus’ existence?

    Secondly, given that the gospels were written some decades after the events took place, is it possible that local mythology could have been incorporated into them? And if so, do you think that fact would be relevant to us as Christians today?

    Lastly, I once heard that around Jesus’ time (within one or two hundred years) it was not uncommon for someone to claim to be the messiah the Jews were waiting for. Do you know if this was the case in the culture of that time? It seems relevant only because if there were multiple “messiahs” than it is all the more exceptional that Jesus’ claim was believed and followed when the others weren’t.

    Probably more questions than you can answer in a post but any answers would be appreciated.

    Thank you again for sharing your thoughts with us, I’ve found a lot of your blogs to be very helpful!

  7. John Stackhouse

    JDB,

    Good questions!

    Jesus’ existence is simply not in question among scholars of archaeology or history. Even pretty skeptical scholars believe he existed and that the gospels provide us with at least some valid information about his words and actions. Only a nutty fringe keeps alive the idea that “Jesus never existed!”

    Again, SOMETHING must be posited back there in the first century that is adequate to explain the rise of the world’s largest religion, which has this particular shape, this particular set of teachings, this particular literature, and so on. The early disciples of Jesus might have been wrong, or fanciful, or deceptive, or whatever, but SOMEBODY needed to make up the Sermon on the Mount AND the various discourses in the Gospel of John AND the various accounts of Jesus’ doings that have somehow inspired millions and millions of people, some of them pretty smart, to believe that this stuff is all true!

    See books by Paul Barnett, Craig Blomberg, and Mark Roberts on this question–and the second one you ask, namely, about mythology creeping in.

    Again, what makes the idea of mythology in the gospels entirely unlikely is at least two factors: (1) the early Christians were Jews, and thus had a strong commitment to historicity, with their God working in actual events and not in some distant, mythical “before-time”; and (2) the New Testament documents are written only a few decades, not centuries, later–within the lifetimes, in fact, of eyewitnesses or of those who had been taught the Christian message by eyewitnesses.

    Finally, yes, it is true that there were a number of “messiahs” in Jesus’ day and afterward. You are right to remark on the interesting fact that Jesus’ claim to messiahship took lasting hold while others’ did only briefly, if at all.

    What makes the success of Jesus’ claim even stranger and more interesting is that Jesus was a messiah that precisely NO Jew was looking for at the time. Whatever else Messiah was supposed to do, he was at least to throw off the Roman yoke and re-establish the throne of David. Jesus did that only in a spiritual sense, and so one of the remarkable questions in the history of religion is why ANY Jews came to believe he was God’s Anointed (= “Messiah”), let alone thousands and thousands of Jews and Gentiles in those early centuries.

    One last point. There continue to be serious historical and theological questions to ask about Jesus, such as whether the gospels are right in their accounts of the miraculous, how accurate are their historical facts generally, whether Jesus really is God made human and the Saviour of the World, et cetera. I respect those questions and Christians ought to be prepared to give such questions proper answers.

    What I’m not so respectful of is the sort of argument in “Zeitgeist.” It makes me kinda angry, actually, that thoughtful people who honestly want to know what happened back then would be bamboozled by the people who produced this film. I’ve spent my career asking serious questions about the history and character of world religions and about Christianity in particular, and then teaching what I’ve learned to bright, inquisitive students. I love any honest question in that zone.

    So I hope the rather impatient tone in my original blog entry will be understood as my impatience with people who purport to be authorities who then dish out nonsense to sincerely interested audiences. By all means, ask those tough questions. Just don’t expect reliable answers from Jordan Maxwell & Co.–that’s all I’m saying.

  8. dan

    I had a similar “impatient” reaction to Karen Armstrong’s A History of God (a Christmas gift from my wife’s brother). I was continually baffled by the fact that such an obviously intelligent person, could put forth such obviously shoddy arguments. Indeed, I began to wonder if Armstrong was deliberately giving her readers information she knew to be false in order to futher her ideological purposes. Writing, as she does, for a popular audience, allows her fabricate really bad arguments that would look really smart to those lacking the requisite education. I wondered if she was thinking, “well, the end justifies the means” or something like that.

  9. JDB

    John,

    Thank you for addressing my questions so thoroughly. Your sincerity, insight and ability to relay ideas clearly is a gift that I am glad you are willing to share with us all. Also, thank you for expressing yourself in a way that contributes to changing the negative view that many non-Christians have of us instead of adding to it. Keep up the good work!

    JDB

  10. Lucifer

    Well John….Although a very educated and intellectually worded argument, I would have to say that it is greatly flawed in itself. You’ve based the entire backbone upon your own beliefs. What if you’re religious beliefs are also incorrect?
    – Errors can be made, as you’ve clearly pointed out. Hipocrite.

  11. John Stackhouse

    Always interesting when the Prince of Darkness stops by to offer a comment.

    I don’t criticize “Zeitgeist” on the basis of my “own beliefs”–unless by my “own beliefs” you mean “facts.” Of course I could be wrong about this or that or anything else, but until I am shown to be wrong, as I have shown “Zeitgeist” to be wrong, then I surely am entitled to believe as I do, right?

    So I am not a hypocrite: That’s what people do when they take issue with someone else’s argument on the basis of the known facts.

    But we might expect this sort of thing from the Master of Confusion. Thanks for the visit!

  12. Margaret Manning

    John,

    Thank you for this post. Even though it is not a recent one, I cannot tell you how many hundreds of emails I receive at RZIM concerned about “shaken faith” as a result of zeitgeist. While my critiques of the first movie and the second, zeitgeist addendum, are not nearly as precise as your own, since I’ve found this post, I’ve hyperlinked it into my essays on these films. They are a whole bunch of hogwash.

    On another note, have you seen the article in the Atlantic by Robert Wright called “One World, Under God”? In the article, he claims that Mark’s gospel, as the first gospel (most likely) presents the most authentic portrait of Jesus, contra the Jesus Seminar folks who want to put forward the more “loving” Jesus presented in Matthew, Luke and John. He rightfully points out that there is no Sermon on the Mount in Mark, and that Mark presents a Jesus with a clearly insular focus, no global (read Gentile) concern. He points out Jesus’s meeting with the Syrophoenician woman as a case in point. Wright goes on to argue that Paul was really a CEO figure who utilized the “connections” of the Roman Empire to spread the gospel, and this new, more pragmatic message of universal love that crosses ethnic, gender, etc…boundaries, i.e., the Christianity we know and love today. This part of the argument is not very concvincing to me, although he still raises some points to ponder. What I’m more concerned about is the distinct portrait of Jesus in Mark – in many ways, it is the most mysterious – with the whole Messianic Secret, and the issues Wright raises that I’ve mentioned above. Have you given any thought to this? Would you be willing in all your free time!!! (ha) to read and expound on this article? The link is here, in case you are willing/able:

    http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/print/200904/globalization-religion.

    Thanks, John. Many blessings to you -I’m still trying to get a visit in to Vancouver now that I’m in Seattle!

  13. John Stackhouse

    Thanks for the note, Margaret. I haven’t read the article you mention yet — magazines come in the mail from the US slower here than they do down there, and my issue just arrived a couple of days ago. But maybe when I read it I will have something to say!

    I certainly do hope you’ll able to visit. Perhaps there will be something in our summer school offerings that will tempt you northward for a week or two!

  14. Margaret Manning

    John, just a P.S. really – the article is meant to be an argument for globalization, and it’s a ridiculous argument, at best! So, the article may or may not be worth your time. However, I was struck (as sometimes happens in reading) by something I guess I had never considered before; namely, that Mark’s gospel portrait of Jesus is at best mysterious…and I’m wondering how you have thought about the different portraits of Jesus in the gospels – sort of the how’s and why’s of these… that is more my question, from one silly, article! We’ll talk about it at some point, and I’ll look into the summer offerings at Regent!

  15. Philip Donald

    Hi Margaret and John, your comments (and the article later) also got me thinking. The immediate thought that came to my mind, was that Mark wrote the things which stuck in his mind as a young man following Jesus. He may have not been too interested in the loving side of Jesus. It doesn’t take away from the character of Jesus, it just points top the character of the writer. Aren’t we supposed to read the gospels together to get as complete a picture of Jesus as possible?
    Having read a number of biographies of Horatio Nelson, one of the things I realised is that the later biographies gave a far more accurate picture of Nelson than the earlier biographies.
    I am only a newly registered student and have a lot to learn, but I’m learning to read as many sides of the story I have time for, as possible.

  16. Margaret Manning

    Dear Philip,

    Yes, I think you are quite right. However, I also believe that evangelicals have often tried to “harmonize” the gospels without paying attention to their unique differences. I had never thought about Mark being more concerned about a “Jewish Jesus” in many respects as opposed to Luke, for example, who has Jesus out their always championing the “underdog” or the “outsider” as it were.

    But, I appreciate your helpful comments and God’s richest blessings on you as you continue to study and learn!

  17. The Hidden Investor

    That’s really an interesting note, Ms Margaret,
    I have always been puzzled why there had to be four gospel writers (had there been any more?) and not only one.

    I thought, well..
    (1) corroboration for credibility or something,
    (2) forming a composite whole (well, since, a human personality is pretty much complex and multi-faceted, let alone, the Lord’s)
    (3) and maybe, yes, as you’ve said, each may have a different focus on the Lord’s character, that’s telling us something else.

    I will be sure to read Mark again, it’s funny, because, I usually leave him out among them, I don’t know why.
    God bless you! (Thanks to sir Philip and of course, sir John! nicely done, you’ve beaten up Zeitgeist pretty good! I get edgy when films or TV shows tell me, and as-a-matter-of-factly at that, a distorted story of my faith! and some people I know make such a big deal out of it as if it were an arcane idea, if not some sort of profound truth, themselves have unearthed – well, it really sells – and maybe that’s simply what it’s all about) Goodday!

  18. Chris B

    Hi, I am a deist and I was wondering if you guys were the type of christians that would disown me because my religion is different than yours. My grandparents did my wifes grandparents did, our aunts and uncles did, my non-denomination church did. I have heard of this trend all over the place and I have discovered that these are not isolated cases. What gives, can I gget an email from someone explaining to me, my wife, and my six year old has no family. Is it because of christianity and people, well I would say so. Can you please help me I can’t stand religion. I think that everyone has it right we are a simple human how can we imply that just your god or man is the right way to heaven. Since the beginning of time man has try to come up with their own image of who god is and I can definately tell you that your view of god is know better than mine or anyone elses. Stop condemming people to Haties, hell, or whatever you call it. I just want to know if there real christians that don’t take the concepts of the bible and hellfire literally anymore because it rips people’s families apart. I was watching a bill maur movie a few months ago and there was a cardinal outside the vadikan and he said that people don’t believe in that anymore, but I find that far from true. PLEASE EMAIL ME WHAT YOU THINK OF THIS ISSUE THANK YOU 🙁 CHRIS cbaskins82420@gmail.com I was on the path to enlightenment until this happens. I did not take the bible literally and I wanted to become like jesus perfectly nice and I was getting there until people made me hate religion all the way around what the heck I AM MADDDDD

    Thanks a gain
    cbaskins82420@gmail.com

    PS did you see the ANCIENT ALIENS DOCUMENTERY on the History Channel, like the bible possible but probably a crock

  19. Philip Donald

    Hi Chris

    I understand your frustration (well perhaps not to the same degree) but it upsets me tremendously when people are shunned because of their beliefs.

    I’m currently studying Theology and believe Jesus is the Son of God, but I by no means claim to be an expert on God or the field of theology. (I’ve been at class for three weeks).

    The way I understand it is that we can’t say who isn’t going to heaven (i.e. who is going to hell) but if all that is written in the bible is true (when interpreted correctly) then we can be confident that we are going to spend eternity with God. That sounds terribly arrogant, I know, but our confidence is not in ourselves, but in Jesus, he has made it possible for us. I believe that he makes it possible for others as well (non-Christians), but I can’t say what criteria will be used. (I don’t know).

    What the Cardinal mentioned is true in that people’s concept of hell is changing from one of ‘fire and brimstone’ to one where God is absent. Also, to a large extent, it’s not God who condemns people to Hell, but people who choose not to spend eternity with God. Like C.S Lewis put it, ‘There are those who bend the knee and say to God, “Thy will be done”, and those who refuse to bend the knee to whom God says, “Thy will be done”‘. Also think of it like this, if a person doesn’t want to spend eternity with God, why would God want to force a person to spend eternity with Him.

    Obviously, I don’t speak for all Christians. There is a rather vocal section that believe the things you have experienced so far. I don’t speak for them and I can’t comment on what they say without hearing directly, as often what people say is misrepresented in the press and other media as well.

    One of the things our lecturers mention at college is that by the end of our course, we may well think of Church as a curse word. What I can say, and hopefully you can take from this, is that the person of Jesus and the way church (religion) is practiced (often, but not always) are not in agreement. I am happy to enter into correspondence to answer questions you may have from time to time. I have posted this onto the website as well, because it may help people who peruse the site from time to time.

    Another avenue you may want to explore is doing an Alpha Course (visit alpha.org to find a church near you running the course) which provides a non-threatening, non-condemning environment where you can ask any question and explore the Christian faith with fellow seekers.

    Keep well and I hope we can chat soon
    Philip

  20. Jerome

    I enjoyed your view on this video.
    It is strange that you cannot make a comment on there website.
    I found the evaluation of George Carlin about God to be refreshing. It give us the real view of what the non-Christian might be thinking when they try to understand Christianity in view of the dogma in religion.
    A sobering view to our failure to reflect the truth of Christs Love to the world.
    It was funny! but made me reflect.

  21. Thatsmyname

    <<<>>>>

    The narrator does not say “through,” silly guy…. he says “about.” (He says: “..the twelve signs that Jesus travels ‘about’ with.”)

    That’s very different….. goes to show that people want to hear what they want to hear, right?

    • John Stackhouse

      You’re right about that. Thanks. I’ve fixed the post with that correction in view. I think you’ll agree, however, that nothing significant has changed in my evaluation of what’s going on there.

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