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March 15, 2009

‘Zeitgeist’ nonsense: Don’t fall into its trap

Father Robert Barron

and Culture

A few weeks ago, a flood of e-mails and postings on my YouTube page alerted me to the existence of “Zeitgeist, the Movie.”

This is a film that is available exclusively on YouTube and that has begun to exert a strong influence especially among the 20- and 30-something set. A number of parents wrote to me, concerned that their young-adult children were being turned against Christianity by the very persuasive arguments of this film. I watched the movie and found it, to say the very least, unconvincing. It is a congeries of conspiracy theories — which are for some reason always appealing to young people — concerning the U.S. government, the events of Sept. 11 and especially the nature of Christianity.

I won’t bore you with “Zeitgeist’s” fantasies about politics, but I do want to spend some time debunking its silly treatment of Christianity. At the heart of the film’s argument is the claim that Christianity is just one more variation of a master myth that can be found in any number of ancient cultures.

A ‘savior myth’?

The strategy of the filmmaker is to show supposed parallels between the Christian narrative and the stories of various “savior” figures from India, Greece and especially Egypt. This commonality demonstrates, it seems, that there is nothing distinctive about Christian revelation and that, in point of fact, the Gospels represent nothing more than a rather pathetic iteration of much older mythologies. The movie goes so far as to suggest that Jesus never actually existed.

Now this “new” theory is actually quite old. Its roots go back into the 19th century to the work of theosophists, amateur Egyptologists and comparative mythologists such as James Frazer. What the makers of “Zeitgeist” don’t tell you is that this approach was long ago dismissed by serious scholars of both history and religion.

Let me give just a flavor of the argumentation of “Zeitgeist.” If you look at the Egyptian myth of Horus, the Greek myth of Dionysus, and the Hindu story of Krishna, you will find, it appears, striking similarities to the story of Jesus.

The filmmaker claims, for example, that Horus was the son of a god, born of a virgin, was announced and baptized by a figure named Yub (close to John), was crucified and then rose from the dead. He furthermore asserts that Dionysus was a divine-human figure who was crucified, put to death and then resurrected and finally that Krishna was similarly born of a virgin, crucified and brought back to life.

Forced similarities

Admittedly, when these commonalities are enumerated, the copycat theory does seem plausible, but the problem is that, in practically every case, the “similarities” are, at best, forced, and, at worst, made up. It is true that Horus’s father was the god Osiris, but his mother Isis was anything but a virgin; he was not baptized, and he was not crucified (his father was dismembered and then put back together). Krishna was not born of a virgin and he was “crucified” only if being pierced by an arrow in the foot counts as crucifixion. And Dionysus was not born of a virgin because his mother was impregnated in the ordinary way by the god Zeus; he was not crucified, but rather torn to bits by the Titans, and he was “resurrected” when he, like Osiris, was pieced back together.

Now there are many other supposed similarities that I could debunk, but the deeper point is this: Biblical religion is to be sharply distinguished from various forms of mythology.

What the great mythic tales have in common — and Horus, Dionysus, and Krishna are prime examples — is that they are literary expressions of the cycles and rhythms of nature.

Natural cycles

The Horus tale, properly deciphered, is an account of the ebbing and flowing of the Nile, just as the Dionysus story is a poetic treatment of the growth and fruition of the vine. In the mythic consciousness, there is always, understandably enough, a tendency to deify these powerful natural necessities.

There is nothing in the world wrong with mythology; at its best it is beautiful and serves an important social function. But biblical religion is not primarily mythic but historical. The Bible recognizes that the creator God is disclosed in the rhythms of nature, but it never divinizes nature; more to it, it holds that God speaks most decisively in certain definite and unrepeatable historical events.

The historical Jesus

Whereas Horus and Dionysus and Krisha exist in a murky and indefinite past (in what Mircea Eliade called “that time”), Jesus existed at an historical moment that can be rather exactly pinpointed: he was born when Quirinius was governor of Syria and he died when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea. More to it, his existence is affirmed by non-Christian historians such as Josephus and Pliny and Tacitus.

Finally, and most importantly, Jesus was announced by very real figures like Peter, Paul, James, Thomas and Matthew who went to the ends of the earth to proclaim him and who died attesting to the truth of what they taught. Why are there no missionaries of Dionysus or Horus? Because they are mythic characters, not historical personages.

So please don’t be misled by this “Zeitgeist, the Movie” nonsense. Along with Bill Maher’s movie and the books of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, it’s one more mean-spirited, poorly-argued, and easily refuted attack on Christianity.