Friday, 25 March 2011

Does the BBC value its credibility?

The other night, as part of a series entitled The Bible's Buried Secrets, the BBC broadcast a programme entitled "Did God have a wife?", presented by Dr Francesca Stavrakopoulou of the University of Exeter. The programme purported to be a serious piece. In actual fact, most of it was, at best, highly tendentious.

Alas, I could not find a transcript of the programme on the internet, so had to content myself with trying to watch it on an iPlayer, and note down what Dr Stavrakopoulou was saying - a fairly tricky process if your paws are not very good at typing, and you are constantly rewinding to try to get something. It would be so much easier to fisk the thing if the BBC published a transcript. One of the advantages of making documentaries on film is that you are much safer from fisking bloggers!

With apologies then, here is my attempt.

1. In the opening moments of this programme, we learn something. Dr. Stavrakopoulou tells us “According to the Bible, the roots of monotheism can be traced back to the legendary Abraham and a pact he made with God. Worship me, and me alone, and I will give the land of Canaan to your descendants.” Actually, the Bible says no such thing. It says something similar in Genesis 12 and Genesis 17, but it doesn’t actually say what she says it does. She goes on: “So the Bible’s claim is that Abraham landed in Canaan and founded an entirely new belief system . . . establishing monotheism for 1000 years. Well, that’s the story the Bible tells us, but I disagree.” Again, the Bible never says that Abraham founded an entirely new belief system. In other words, in the first few minutes of the programme, we learn that what Dr Stavrakopoulou says about the Bible is not quite accurate and should not be taken at face value. This may be because she doesn’t actually know the Old Testament very well. Or it may mean that she simply isn’t honest. Half way through the programme, she says “The Bible is an unreliable source. It’s not telling us the truth. ” In my opinion, that could be said of Dr. Stavrakopoulou.

2. And she is good at choosing words that put a certain spin on what she says. She speaks of the discoveries at Ugarit since 1928, and what they tell us about Baal worship, and says “but now, scholars can piece together a detailed and more objective picture of their gods. As we are filming, an odd shaped stone is seen sticking out of the ground. It could be a significant find.” The word “now” implies that this is very up to date. (It’s the same with the way she says “We are now discovering that the ancient Israelites had a good deal more in common with their neighbours and enemies. ”) Well, actually the discoveries are about 70 years old. The Ugarit texts were translated in the 1930s - hardly cutting edge stuff. It is all about what happened when your grandparents were young. And the theory that the ancient Israelites had a religion that evolved from something much like their neighbours was popular in Victorian times. But when she says “As we are filming, an odd shaped stone is seen sticking out of the ground. It could be a significant find,” you are supposed to get the impression that this is 21st century stuff. And words like “scholars”, “detailed”, and “objective” add to the spin. By the way, if this is all old hat, why have you not heard of it before? Simply because it has never convinced enough scholars to be generally accepted.

3. Another interesting aspect of the programme is her use of interviews. She speaks to various people - Walter Moberly of Durham University, a German scholar from Tubingen, a Jewish Rabbi, and a Muslim scholar. The German scholar agrees with much of what she says (notice how she says that he “has researched the real beliefs of the ancient Israelites,” - in other words “he has researched the beliefs of the ancient Israelites, and happens to agree with me, whereas those who have researched the beliefs of the ancient Israelites and who don’t agree with me have not actually researched their real beliefs.”), the Jewish teacher doesn’t, and we don’t hear enough of Walter Moberly to know what he believes. But the use of people with a variety of views is designed to give the impression of fairness. The reality, of course, is different. With all due respect, the Rabbi she chose as the spokesman for the opposition was not very impressive. There are hundreds of Christian (and Jewish) Old Testament scholars who could have knocked big holes in her arguments - but there was never a chance that they would appear on the programme. In effect, Dr Stavrakopoulou is like a clever lawyer putting a case. She chooses her evidence carefully and puts the best spin on it, and she chooses her witnesses carefully as well. But she has a couple of advantages over the courtroom lawyer. One is that there is no lawyer for the defence to make the opposite case. The other is that the words of the witnesses that she calls can end up on the cutting room floor if they don’t fit, because film is a medium which enables scriptwriters and editors to have powers undreamed of by courtroom lawyers.

4. And then there is the whole issue of the idolatry of the people of Israel. Dr Stavrakopoulou continues “When submitted to rigorous analysis, the Biblical texts tell another story. I think the evidence now shows that the people of the Bible believed many gods, and the scribes who composed the Bible did their best to conceal this, but not altogether successfully. A close reading of the Bible reveals that its people found it hard to stick to monotheism.” Actually, this is highly misleading. It doesn’t take a close reading of the Bible to reveal that its people found it hard to stick to monotheism. Even a casual reading of the Bible makes it clear that they found it hard to stick to monotheism. The whole story of the Old Testament from the point that God says “You shall have no other gods before me” to the end, is about how the people of Israel constantly went astray. So to say that “a close reading of the Bible reveals that its people found it hard to stick to monotheism” is hardly accurate. But then most of the people watching this programme know virtually nothing about the Old Testament, and even most church attenders in Britain today are largely unfamiliar with it. So Dr Stavrakopoulou can feel free to indulge in misleading statements about what the Old Testament says with little fear of being picked up by the viewers.

When she says, referring to the contest between Elijah and the prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel “But in my view this crude caricature of Baal worship is a warning to the people not to lapse from faith in one God. It’s a sign that the Biblical writers believed that the people were straying. Such warnings against Baal worship were found again and again in the Bible,” it is difficult not to laugh. “In her view?” That implies she has spotted something unusual. In fact, it is pretty obvious that the whole thing is “a warning to the people not to lapse from faith in one God. “It’s a sign that the Biblical writers believed that the people were straying,” implies that they are covering up the fact that they believed that the people of Israel were straying when they actually tell us constantly that the people of Israel were straying. She keeps on choosing her words to give the impression that she has spotted something new and exciting that undermines the teaching of the Bible.

5. Dr. Stavrakopoulou has two basic bits of evidence that the ancient Israelites were polytheists. The first is that the Bible clearly says that a lot of them were. There is nothing controversial there. The second claim is the one that is dubious. She claims that the Bible actually has polytheistic texts. We get Genesis 1:26 and Psalm 82 and various other texts trotted out in a triumphant “I told you so” tone, with amusing visual effects. Yes, these texts are unusual, and somewhat puzzling at first sight. But the same is true of much of the Bible, including much of the teaching of Jesus. And these texts have other perfectly good interpretations which don’t support her thesis. She, however, concludes “The Bible is telling us that Israel had its own divine council, it’s own pantheon of gods. In other words, the religion of the Israelites was polytheistic, just like that of the Canaanintes." In actual fact, she has simply chosen a few unrelated texts, taken them out of context, put them together and jumped to a conclusion. There is one major flaw in her thesis. She believes that the monotheistic scribes were not smart enough to spot these polytheistic verses and cut them out of the Bible. That seems pretty unlikely to me.

6. The big issue, of course, is the fact that the Canaanites had a God called El, and he is much the same as the God of the Bible who is also called El. There is nothing particularly surprising here, since Ugaritic and Hebrew are very closely related languages, and ‘el’ is the word for ‘god’ in both languages. The word ‘el’ could describe any god. The fact that the chief God of the Canaanites was basically called ‘god’ isn’t that surprising, and nor is the fact that the Hebrews called their god “God". Dr. Stavrakopoulou admits as much. Nor, I suppose, is it that surprising that when God spoke to Abraham, he should have simply called himself “God.”

But could it be that “El”, the chief god of the Canaanites is also the God of the Hebrews? Well, in a funny sort of way, perhaps it could. The Bible says things that suggest that the Canaanites should have known about the true God. The Bible, for example tells us (in Genesis 10) that the Canaanites were descendants of Noah, who worshipped the true God. So they should have known about the true God and worshipped him - even if they, in their folly, decided to add a few dozen false gods. Romans 1:21-23 says that pagans “knew God” but exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.

The most obvious explanation is that since polytheists love to add new gods to their pantheons, (apparently in ancient Rome, some pagans thought that it would be nice to be inclusive and add Jesus to their collection of gods that they revered), the Canaanites had no problem with including the true God in their pantheon. And they turned him into an idol - just as the Israelites did with the true God when they made a golden calf to represent him. It wasn’t that the Israelites worshipped a Canaanite god. It is that the Canaanites adopted the true God into their pantheon, and falsified him. A bit like Mohammed did. He took the God of the Bible as his god, and then distorted him, turning him into a very different god from the God of the Bible. Christian Arabs and Muslim Arabs both call their god “Allah.” Is he the same God? In terms of origin and name, and even in many aspects of his character, yes. But in terms of what this God declares to be true, no.

7. The most silly bit of the programme is the bit where she suggests that monotheism presents God as exclusively male, which leads to the marginalisation and repression of women. To quote Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith in the Catholic Herald, “With a charge like this, where can one start? The polytheistic Greeks and Romans denied females all political rights, despite the fact that Athens was under the protection of the goddess Athene, and Rome under the protection of Juno. The Julio-Claudian rulers claimed descent from Venus, but were not noted for their feminism. The idea that polytheism is more friendly to women is simply unsupported by the facts. It is easy to claim and sounds good, but as a serious thesis, it deserves to be dismissed. How on earth did it ind itself in what purported to be a serious programme about the Bible?”

I've read the Bible. I know something about it. When the BBC produces a programme about the Bible, I can see that a lot of it is tendentious rubbish. I am naturally tempted to conclude that when the BBC produces a programme on a subject that I know little about, it may be entertaining, but it will be unlikely to give me accurate information.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Did I hear that correctly?

I must confess that I have been shocked out of hibernation by the Prime Minister's comments on the case of Eunice and Owen Johns. (See here and here) Mr Cameron said “This matter was decided by a court in the appropriate way and I think we should rest with the judgement that was made.” He also commented “I think Christians should be tolerant and welcoming and broad minded.”

On the subject of what it means to be tolerant and welcoming and broad minded, I don’t wish to say much. (Though my understanding is that being ‘tolerant’ means that you permit beliefs that you disagree with and believe in allowing people to do things that you personally disapprove of.) Mr Cameron appears to be labelling Mr and Mrs Johns as not being tolerant and welcoming and broad minded. Perhaps he should be pressed on this.

However, I must confess that Mr Cameron’s comments on the judgement that really astonish me. Is he really saying “I believe that the law should ban people from fostering children if they hold that homosexual behaviour is morally wrong?” For most of the 20th Century, to say nothing of the 19th, 18th and 17th, to believe that such a prohibition should be enshrined in law would have been absolutely unthinkable, and any politician who advocated such a view would have been thought to be absolutely mad.

Does the Prime Minister really hold the view that anyone who holds traditional views about sexual morality should be banned from fostering children?

And what will be next? What questions about beliefs and values will prospective foster parents be asked in the future - and what answers will result in them being considered to be unsuitable?

I might have some difficulty getting back to sleep after this.