This is point of inquiry for Friday, May 26, 2006.
Welcome to Point of inquiry, I am DJ Grothe a point of inquiry is the podcast and the radio show of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank collaborating with the State University of New York at Buffalo on the new science and the public master’s degree. We also have branches in Manhattan, Tampa and Hollywood and 11 other cities around the world. Every week on point of inquiry, we examine some of the central beliefs of our culture, even the most controversial issues facing us, focusing on three research areas mostly. First there, pseudoscience and the paranormal. Second, alternative medicine. Third, we look at secularism and the role of religion in public life. We look at these areas by drawing on the Center for Enquirers relationship with the leading minds of the day, including Nobel Prize winning scientists, public intellectuals, social critics and thinkers and renowned entertainers. Last week, I mentioned that on this week’s episode of Point of Inquiry, we would be featuring Joe Niccolò, the world’s leading paranormal investigator. That’s not the case. Maybe you should be more skeptical. Instead, I’m going to be talking with Professor Joe Hoffman. He is professor of biblical studies. He’s going to be with us to talk about The Da Vinci Code and the scientific study of the Bible. But before we get to that discussion, I want to talk to you about a subject near and dear to my heart. The Center for Inquiries mission is to promote reason, science and freedom of inquiry in every area of human endeavor. And I would argue that that is the exact mission of every leading college and university around the world. What’s the goal going to school? It’s not just to get a good job so you can make more money. It’s not just to have a lot of parties have fun with your buddies. The real meaning of a good education is to create a way of looking at the world where you’re not afraid of certain questions, a way of looking at the world that promotes free, unfettered, critical inquiry into every area. And lo and behold, that CFI is mission to sadly, in our culture today, there are a number of trends that seek to undermine this mission of the university. There are anti evolution movements and pro paranormal movements. Consider that the campus crusade for Christ alone, which is kind of evangelical Christian campus outreach organization, has an annual operating budget surpassing 400 million dollars a year. Now, what are we doing about that? Well, we have a campus outreach program. We call it Center for Inquiry on campus. This July 14th, 15th and 16th, 2006, we are inviting students from all over the country to convene here in Amherst, New York, for three days of training on how to respond to this, I think growing threat that imperils the proud and noble tradition of the university, which is to promote free inquiry. Universities should be a place where no questions are off limits, no issues are taboo. And we’d like your help with this weekend. We’ve invited student leaders from campus groups affiliated with us from all over the country, even some internationally. And getting them here is going to be quite a financial burden for a small nonprofit. So if you are interested in helping us bring students here this summer, please go to the link on our Web site and make a donation. The weekend’s events will include workshops on event planning, student activism, media relations, in addition to some keynote speakers such as Lauren Becker, Sarah Jordan, Paul Kurtz, Eddie Dubash. Even a remote keynote address by Richard Dawkins at Oxford University. So please do consider helping us bring students in from all over the country. We look forward to your help reaching the campuses. And now for a word about how we’re trying to reach younger people than college students. Sarah Jordan, who will talk to us about youth science education and our new summer camp camp inquiry.
This summer at the Center for Inquiry will host its first summer program for Kids Camp Inquiry, July 12th through 17th. It’s a camp for kids ages seven through 16 years old. And we’ll feature interactive activities on a broad range of topics field hikes, a natural history day, superstition fair and activities which explore ethics. We have always thought that subjects like thinking, science and human values can be great fun. And it makes a dramatic difference to introduce kids to science and inquiry at a young age. Students who have the opportunity to appreciate science as a process of discovery are more likely to stay interested in science throughout their lives and to take science courses in high school and college. This week, the National Center for Educational Statistics released their five year report assessing science proficiency in grades four, eight and 12. The national results show an increase in the average science scores since 1996, a grade for no significant changes at grade eight and a decline in science proficiency for high school seniors. While the report focuses on the relative scores of the states and the changes over time, I was alarmed by the absolute numbers in the report. Students are graded as basic proficient or advanced proficient. The median assessment bracket means that students are learning what our standards indicate they should be learning. 73 percent of fourth grade students nationwide are performing at or below the basic level. To put it another way, nearly three quarters of fourth grade students do not meet the median standard of proficiency. And this is an improvement over five years ago. And it is better than the numbers in eighth and 12th grades. Clearly, we are not doing enough to engage kids in science at the Center for Inquiry. We believe that the desire to learn about and understand the world around us is a basic human urge. But the process of science is nonintuitive. At Camp Inquiry, we imagine a number of activities that will help young people learn about the glorious role, the vase and explore on their own the process of answering questions along with regular activities planned at the camp. Programs and events are being developed, especially for camp inquiry. Our goal is to introduce young people to skepticism and free inquiry and to help them develop an appreciation for science and humanism through fun events and activities. Kids can learn about extraordinary claims within the paranormal and supernatural realms about human values and decision making. And they will enjoy adventures in nature that will help them to appreciate the universe and the wonderful discoveries that humanity has made. Camp inquiry is oriented around the central theme of skeptical inquiry. The focus is especially memorable when presented against the backdrop of nature. In a typical campground setting, along with providing kids the fun and enjoyment of a summer camp, activities also have an educational element. This learning component compliments a child’s educational development and doesn’t play into the stereotypical image of the Boxton classroom at Camp Inquiry. We will explore the night sky and learn about the constellations and how ancient civilizations explained what they saw in the skies above. We will learn about astrology and UFOs and the idea of heaven on our nature hikes. We will explore topics such as cryptozoology and evolution. Cameras will also create a variety of items they can take home. Some of our special camp inquiry games will involve using our five senses and our thinking skills. We have a wonderful lineup of activities planned, guaranteed to provide an enjoyable experience for our young campers. The dates for our first year, July 12th through 17th, 2006. The location is Camp Seven Hills, located in Holland, New York. For more information about the program or to register, please visit Camp Inquiry dot org.
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I’m really pleased this week to be joined by Joe Hoffman, formerly at Oxford. He’s a professor of religion at Wells College in Ithaca, New York. He’s recently joined the Center for Inquiry as chair of the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion, the world’s leading international network of scholars committed to the interdisciplinary study of religion and religious truth claims. Joe, welcome to a point of inquiry.
Thanks for having me, T.J.. It’s lovely to be here. And can I just say that as a fan of this program, it’s wonderful, the service you’re providing and the big guest you’ve had order just sterling examples of the important of critical inquiry across the board today. So congratulations on this fine enterprise of yours.
Well, while, Joe, I appreciate you saying that. Let’s get into this discussion about the Bible in general, but I’m specifically interested in and talking about all the hubbub around Dan Brown’s book and the movie. You’re a scholar of the Bible, even though you’re a skeptic. But the big buzz these days, as you know when it comes to discussions about the Bible, really has to do with Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. It’s a worldwide bestsellers. What? It sold something like 50 million copies worldwide, something like 80000 copies per week. Now, last week, it came out as the second grossing movie worldwide. Why do you think it’s so popular for people?
Well, I think there are a number of ways to look at it. Both the book and the movie have been extremely popular. And the movie, of course, is a record breaker already. My guess about why it’s so popular has something to do with the fact that it’s an interesting blend of unconventional sources, which many people know absolutely nothing about. Obscure sources, which Dan Brown claims in the introduction to the book, are all historical and verifiable. And to a certain extent, that’s true. He does ingenius things with these sources and he’s sort of splices those sources together. Things like the Dead Sea Scrolls, which he seems to think are indistinguishable from the so-called Gnostic gospels, earliest period of Christianity, along with a number of other better known artifacts in the history of art, like the famous DaVinci Last Supper, the Mona Lisa. And this ingenious combination of the unknown and the known that accounts for the sense of intrigue. And I think enhances the sort of conspiracy theory and thriller aspects of the book and of the movie.
I might be the only person on the planet to never have read that book. Why don’t we begin the discussion by telling me what the story is all about?
Sure. Perhaps some of the listeners don’t know what Dan Brown, who is a New England prep school teacher, has done, is to take some sort of verifiable information about the way in which the New Testament canon was actually created. He does, in fact, get these details wrong and describes the selection of the books of the New Testament to the Emperor Constantine, which is not actually correct. And then he suggests that from an early period, perhaps going all the way back to Jesus himself, who wrote a transcript of his life, Jesus became a kind of icon with a legacy, a dynasty, a Jesus dynasty, if you will. In fact, my friend James Tabor has just written a very reliable book called The Jesus Dynasty, which sets out an alternative history of all of this without any explanation of how it might have happened in an historically plausible way. Dan Brown then says that the transcript that Jesus himself produced of his life and a gospel by Mary Magdalene, in fact, such a gospel does exist, but not quite the kind of gospel that Dan Brown would like us to believe exists were suppressed by early Christianity as it grew in power and influence. And so it became a real motive force within this early movement. This religious movement, as it acquired power to absolutely disguise the identity of both of Jesus and of his descendants. Because, according to Brown, these early sources suggest that he was married or at least related in some way sexually to Mary Magdalene and produced an air, a really heretical idea, a really heretical idea, and one which is impossible to locate. And these sources that he mentions, I mean, I want to stress that Wood Brown is doing is creating a work of plausible fiction. He never really denies this. I mean, the appeal of the book is not the appeal of history, because as we may remember from school, history doesn’t have that kind of appeal. You know, real historical discoveries often don’t create fan clubs. But the Dan Brown book is a good thing in a way, because it is called attention to this very, very early and very, very ambiguous period in the history of the church, admittedly, in the context of a conspiracy story which is full of intrigue and implausibilities. But if you ask me, it’s Signior. Can’t because people who’ve never heard of this stuff, the people in the pews. The Christian faithful. And I daresay a lot of humanists and skeptics have never really heard of these alternative sources for creating the Christian movement.
Would you say that’s a reason why it has such an appeal to even religious people, these heretical, these outlandish views, albeit in a novel it says right on the cover novel. Still, it’s so popular, even among the zealous.
Yeah, that’s harder to. That’s harder to understand, it seems to me, because on the one hand, a great many people who one would think would be absolutely outraged by this. The evangelicals, for example, have displayed an enormous degree of curiosity about that. And I think that’s a good thing. I think if you can get the evangelical Christians, maybe even a few fundamentalist evangelical Christians, to become interested in the history of a book which for centuries they have thought had no history, that’s actually a service that Dan Brown has inadvertently performed. Because what they’re going to go away from this book with is quite a question like is there really a gospel of Mary Magdalene? Is there really a gospel attributed to Judas that that hasn’t come up in the book, per say? Do these sources actually exist? And if they do exist, where can I read them? Where can I find them? How much historical credibility can I assign to them? So I think all of those services, if you will, are things that Dan Brown has inadvertently performed by virtue of writing a work of historical fiction. So that’s that’s for the good.
So those are positive effects. Before we continue exploring some of the other positive effects, maybe even some negative effects of the book. I want to talk to you about Dan Brown’s sources. You are a renowned critic and historian of the Bible, a textual critic in some senses. You New Testament historian, you know a lot about Christian origins. What do you think about Dan Brown’s sources? Is he just making all of them up or is he selectively picking them? Where’s he getting the fodder for his fiction?
Okay. Well, I don’t want to go into a great deal of detail because Dan Brown doesn’t I mean, Dan Brown, as I said, is a prep school teacher from Exeter. His wife is, according to Dan Brown, an art historian, though, in fact, she doesn’t actually have a degree in art history, has never taught in the field. But there is this attribution, especially about the art, historical resources of the book, too, to her interpretations, which is actually quite interesting. But I think the beauty of Dan Brown’s approach to sources is that he isn’t an expert. And so when people like myself actually look at it, I have to say, well, is he being fair? Is he being balanced in the way he sort of looks at these ancient documents? And the answer is, of course, he has no intention of being fair or balanced. And to a certain extent, he both manipulates and abuses history. These Gnostic gospels, for example, which Dan Brown wants us to believe existed side by side, almost like ducks in a row, 80 and all in the fourth century. We’re sort of cherry picked by an emperor who did make some interesting contributions to Christianity in the form of the dogma of the Trinity, but had nothing to do with the selection of the New Testament canon down. Brown would like us to believe that all these gospels were sort of laid out on a table, figuratively speaking, and the emperor chose four from among them. Well, no, that’s an abuse of history. And I think that does a kind of disservice to the real pattern that scholars know existed. False history. It didn’t happen. It’s absolutely false history. It’s a manipulation of history and an abuse of history. It’s interesting. It’s it’s a nice hypothesis, but it’s belied by every ancient document and record that we know from that period. Instead, what happened was these gospels that we call Canonical, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. So those aren’t the names originally ascribed to these gospels. Probably almost certainly existed before the Gnostic gospels. And the one thing that all of these so-called canonical gospels insist upon, I myself have my doubts for reasons we won’t go into today, perhaps in a future segment. These gospels insist on the historical existence of Jesus. He walked, he talked, he exorcized people who perform miracles. He wrote nothing. And the gospels never suggest that he did. And he rose from the dead, which is also presented as a kind of historical datum in the canonical gospel. It’s a claim made in all four. It is a claim made an offer that he died and was raised from the dead. As if there is no difference between the natural course of events and the supernatural course of events. That’s what we get in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. In the Gnostic Gospels, Jesus really has no historical existence and this is something Dan Brown completely overlooks. So the relationship between Mary Magdalene, for example, and Jesus can’t really have existed because there is no historical Jesus in the Gnostic gospels.
What do you mean by that? There’s no character of Jesus in these or there’s no. What do you mean by no historical Jesus in the in the noncanonical gas?
Better. Good question. There is no flesh and blood. Jesus. There is a Revealer. There is a phantom. There is a kind of spiritual presence who is sometimes called Jesus and sometimes called other things, including sometimes by feminine names. But it’s not a man, but it’s not a human person. Right. A real historical biography. So there’s no virgin birth. There are no physical relationships. There are followers. But the followers of Jesus and these sources that Dan Brown is using are following a message. They’re following a divine revealer, a Gnostic savior who has really come just to reveal to them their true identity. It’s really all about the followers, in fact, not about Jesus himself in the Gnostic gospels. The word that’s used in Greek is apostasies. He’s not apostasies of a higher power. The father, the plural, met something way up there that’s hard to understand. The Gnostic gospels are actually quite obscure in a way that the canonical gospels are some some of the best scholars. The field have said that if the Orthodox Christians had never bothered to take on the Gnostics, they would have failed anyway because their gospels are just damn difficult to read and almost impossible to understand.
So that’s one thing I think we need to to be aware of is that the Dan Brown has created a history from the written works, the gospels of people who had no particular use for history and certainly no use at all for the historical Jesus.
So in all of his writings, you find little evidence for his claims. But then again, he’s writing a novel. He’s not writing an historical treatise. Do you give him any latitude for that or does he have some sort of obligation for the hundreds of thousands of people who honestly believe that there is this conspiracy theory within the Catholic Church to suppress this truth?
Yeah, that’s another excellent question. I think I have to separate what Dan Brown does with his sources in terms of calling attention to them and inviting people to look for things outside the New Testament of the Bible in general as a way of reconstructing Christian beginnings. Christian beginnings are very ambiguous. And scholars today cannot begin to put this puzzle together without looking at those sources. So to the extent that he’s telling people who’ve never heard of this stuff, look, it’s out there. Check me. I think that’s good. On the other hand, I’m a little concerned about the cultic aspects of The DaVinci Code and a kind of neo Gnosticism. As a matter of fact, that has been created as a result of the popularity of the book. One of my students calls it Harry Potter for adults, because if you if you look at what’s been happening in the last 10 to 12 years, there is a kind of air of mystery, magic and intrigue that runs through Narnia, that runs through Middle Earth, that runs through Hogwarts Academy and also runs through The DaVinci Code. The only difference really is the people who have tended to buy The Da Vinci Code have been over the age of 18. But it’s still a kind of fantasy, a kind of meditation on history. And if we look at your question, the way I think you’re wanting it to be answered, I think the answer is. It’s terribly, terribly important to keep in mind that this is a work of fiction and that Dan Brown is not saying, look, this is the way it really happened. At the same time, the movie doesn’t come with a skull and crossbones. It doesn’t come with. This is not poison to read. It’s not poison to watch. People are gonna have to make up their own minds about it. And some people who leave the theater, some people who finish reading the book are simply going to say, oh, you know, well, that’s the way it really happened. There’s no safeguard against superstition, just like there’s no safeguard against ignorance.
But then again, some people who bump into an actor who plays a character on a soap opera in the street believe that that man is that character in the soap opera. So you can’t be responsible for just everybody believing everything. Do you think he’s been responsible enough, though, and emphasizing, hey, folks, this is fiction?
That’s that’s a that’s that’s hard to tell.
I think when when we move beyond the ancient sources to medieval legend like the Holy Grail, for example, or the idea of the Knights Templar or the conspiracy to suppress the identity of Jesus’s descendants, it becomes more and more fabulous in the sense that it becomes more and more a fable. It becomes more and more difficult to swallow any of it. Some people who love the Grail legend and some people who like the later parts of the fiction, for example, what he does with art history, what he does with Opus Day, the way he puts these things into one great big mixing bowl and stirs them together and comes up with a kind of coherent structure. I find it really quite extraordinary. What people need to know is that this is Dan Brown. And it’s nothing that he’s discovered. He’s he’s not Indiana Jones, he’s, you know, he’s he’s not a detective. He’s not a Sherlock Holmes. He’s not somebody who has figured this out and is presenting this to the public, to the audience as evidence. He has created this fiction. He’s a novel, right? He is a novel writer. And he has the right to be as disrespectful of sources as Shakespeare was. Right. Or as Chaucer was. It seems to me that this is what’s not being given him. And part of the reason is not being given to him is because once a novel writer is written is novel or a moviemaker has made his movie. It becomes a separate thing. It’s for the Catholic Church to tell us what Opus Days designs really are. It’s for the art historians to tell us that there are no hidden messages in The Da Vinci Last Supper. There’s nothing going on in the Mona Lisa. There are no hidden messages in the corners of paintings in the loop. I mean, all of these things are obviously frivolous and fantastic and wonderful because that’s the way fiction and literature are. But it has created, I think, a new sort of Da Vinci called the kind of religio da Vinci, which in itself is absurd, since we really should be calling it the Leonardo code, since the venture isn’t his last name. Many.
Joe, as a skeptical yet renowned scholar of the Bible, you are critical of certain aspects of The Da Vinci Code. But you give it some latitude. Cause, heck, it’s a novel. Do you see any merit at all? And what it has to say?
Insofar as it’s a good read, insofar as it’s entertaining and insofar as it’s a kind of wakeup call to certain people, I mean, I have to say that we’re living in a huge age. And I think most of the CSIRO people believe this, too, of religious ignorance. I mean, most people don’t know anything about religion. And oddly enough, the more religious the country becomes, the the more ignorant we tend to be about the sources of the foundational documents. For example, when I’ve heard evangelicals respond that eventually code, it’s very easy for them to say this isn’t our history. You know, the Bible was written in the USA. Fast forward to the 21st century where it’s been marvelously and miraculously preserved for everybody to read in English. So DaVinci doesn’t impact them, perhaps in the same way that it impacts the Roman Catholics who have been the primary defenders of the true story. But then again, most Roman Catholics don’t know anything about Gnostic gospels or hidden codes or anything of the sort. Most Roman Catholics don’t know very much about Opus Day, even though Opus Dei is not particularly that interesting and not particularly that secretive. So, I mean, I think Dan Brown has exercised his responsibility as an artist, as a writer, and we don’t need to expect anything more of him. As we were just saying, there are good aspects to this and bad aspects to anything that becomes extremely popular. The trend, the fad, the cults that will emerge. I just heard that 30 colleges and universities across the country have already specified in their film courses that then she will be on the syllabus. It’s a guaranteed success. People will be talking about this for the next two years at least, and then I suspect it will all die away almost as fast as it can.
Do you think there are some positive effects and that it’s inquiring people to examine their central beliefs a little bit more, wondering if in fact, what they believe about the Bible is the right thing to believe about it, considering that there are all these other ways of looking at it, too?
Yeah. Well, I think, generally speaking, Da Vinci doesn’t have anything to do with God. I mean, if I were a believer in a not, that would be my starting point. It has to do with Jesus. It has to do with a kind of hypothesis of fictional hypotheses about how a religion, which is very, very hard to figure out at its beginnings, actually might have evolved. If you eliminate the primary truth claim of Christianity, which of course is the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, go from there. But for most Christians, of course, the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is what you have to affirm if you’re going to call yourself a Christian central. It’s absolutely central. I mean, Saint Paul made it central. You know, you believe this or forget it. You may as well go home, but I may as well stop preaching. So I don’t think Dan Brown feels any responsibility to people’s religious faith. I don’t think he’s trying to bolster it. I don’t think he’s trying to hurt it. I think he’s just somebody who was, you know, teaching school in Exeter, New Hampshire, became intrigued with some of what he was reading, as all of this did once upon a time. And he thought, hey, what if it happened this way? And beyond that, everything seemed to fall into place for him. Ed for us.
Joe, if someone’s gotten interested because of our discussion or because the reading of Dan Brown’s books and all the other books, that it’s kind of cottage industry books about this book, someone’s gotten into this and into Christian origins. What’s something that you could suggest to them that they could do? Are there any books that you’d recommend people go out and get investigate, explore, get into further?
The best book on the market right now. That isn’t a direct response to Dan Brown is a book by James Tabor at the University of North Carolina called The Jesus Dynasty. Which suggests that part of what Dan Brown has to say is actually factually based in the sense that Jesus had biological brothers and biological sisters who took over for him in Jerusalem after his death. But mind you, in James Tabors view, in most people’s view, he did, in fact, die. He did not get married and have children. But the Jesus time is t is is sort of interesting book. It makes good sense of all the available sources.
Is it the consensus view a lot of people agree with it or is it cutting edge scholarship?
I think it’s cutting edge. I think it’s it’s just out in the last six months. And I think it’s it’s it will never be The DaVinci Code for most people. But I highly recommend buying another book. That’s a bit older. That gets into the question of Jesus’s human relationships. And the question not just to the historical but the human biological Jesus who had brothers and sisters and a mother, presumably is a book by Robert Price called The DaVinci Fraud. And I think that Bob has done a very, very good job of exposing the errors. If people are interested in that in in in Dan Brown’s book. I, I produced a little book which has nothing. It’s far too old and dated for that. But if people are interested in the sources, the historical pagan sources that Dan Brown seems to allude to, they might look at my Jesus outside the gospels, both for a very brief introduction to the Gnostic sources and also to some of the other documentary evidence for the historical Jesus. There’s a lot being written.
I’d like to let our listeners know that all of those books and maybe a couple others will be available at a discount on our Web site point of inquiry dot org. Joe, I love that I got to grab you in the hallway when you you’re walking around today visiting CFI and ask you to be on the show. I sure appreciate it. I look forward to when you’re back.
Thanks very much, D.J.. Lovely to be here.
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Point of inquiry is produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded here at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York. Executive producer is Paul Kurtz. Point of Inquiry’s music is written and composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael Quailing. Contributors to today’s show, including Lauren Becker, Sara Jordan, Thomas Donnelly. And I’m your host, DJ Grothe.