"Realism" vs. Reality

A couple of months ago, Paul Verhoeven, a man guilty of creating Robocop, Showgirls, and Starship Troopers, announced he was now going to grace us with a film about Jesus. In an interview, Verhoeven confidently declared:

“My [portrayal of Jesus’] life will be much more realistic and much more historical. I just want to go for what is historically, sociologically and politically real, and is defendable. I mean we couldn’t have the scene of Jesus praying at Golgotha when everyone else is sleeping. How could we have a report of that when everyone’s sleeping? That’s a contradiction in the text already. So all those will be eliminated.”

Because, of course, it’s much more realistic to believe that after Jesus woke the disciples and begged them to pray, they were capable of falling asleep in the second and a half it took Jesus to pray the words the Gospels record. It couldn’t possibly be that the disciples tried to stay awake but were weary with fear. It couldn’t be that the Gospels offer a summary of Jesus’ prayer and not an hour-long, word for word transcription of his pleas.

It is astonishing how, when it comes to Bible characters, our media-soaked culture finds it so easy to believe the preposterous "realism" of the media over the word of Christ. Dorothy L. Sayers once remarked on this, noting that some ninny or other had written of Jesus, “We are told twice that he wept, but never that he smiled” and laughing at the ninny’s inference that Jesus never, therefore, smiled.

In the same way, she noted, some people seem to find it hard to believe that Jesus said “Please” or “Thank you” or “Pass the butter.” He was, after all, a Bible character, not a real human being.

Likewise, the apostles were Bible characters, not people. So when they say “We saw the Risen Christ!” modern folk are ready to believe anything from mass epilepsy to ball lightning as the more "realistic" explanation.

After all, say the media, the apostles were 2000 years stupider than us. If they report they saw Lazarus raised from the dead, it’s because they (who lived in a world where death was frequent and often highly public) knew less about death than we, whose principal experience of death comes through watching “ER.” They were too stupid to know a sick man when they saw him. So they buried Lazarus alive. Because, as all "realists" know, four nights in a freezing crypt without food or water is just what the desperately ill need to bounce back.

Likewise, say "realists", if all four evangelists all agree Jesus miraculously multiplied loaves and fishes, that’s because the apostles (Jews all) were completely unaware that in the ancient Near East, Semitic honor culture highly valued hospitality and believed that the sharing of food was at the core of community.

So when everybody in a crowd of 5000 shared their lunch, say the "realists", the poor stupid apostles naturally thought that loaves and fishes were simply appearing out of thin air by divine ex nihilo fiat. The only reason we don’t all make the same mistake in lunchrooms and cafeterias across America every day is that, of course, we are 2000 years smarter than the apostles. We know that when people share their lunches, it’s not a miracle. But Bible characters were too dumb to know this.

Such "realism" abounds.  For instance, much of the Church on the Left now knows that Jesus either didn’t really expect people to govern their passions or maybe, being 2000 years dumber, he did. At any rate, we know better now, because we’ve seen hundred of realistic films like Showgirls. Jesus’ view on marriage and fidelity are hopelessly unrealistic. The movies told us so.

Likewise, much of the Church on the Right knows Paul wasn’t realistic when he said that those who do evil that good may come of it will get the condemnation they deserve.  So when the Church warns that war does not cancel the moral law and that torture and abuse of prisoners is “intrinsically immoral”, that's "unrealistic".  We know that the Real World is chockablock with Ticking Time Bombs necessitating torture of prisoners. That’s real life. We saw it on 24.

"Realism" of this oddly surreal variety has been with us for some time, as an ancient "realist" named Caiaphas made clear.  He rebuffed those exercised by the totally unrealistic popularity of Jesus by declaring, "You know nothing at all; you do not understand that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish" (John 11:49-50).

It turned out, however, that Reality is a lot bigger than he thought.

Copyright 2007 - Mark P. Shea