• John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

"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.