Thursday, May 01, 2008

Ben Stein as…Jesus?

On a blog that I read was a mention of a Canadian Christian Show interviewing Ben Stein and a producer of Expelled.

I was ready to leave this topic, but caught this fascinating quote by Mr. Stein:

Ben Stein: I get a lot of mail from scientists saying, “We thought you were smart…you turned out to be an idiot. Evolution explains everything, you idiot. Don’t you get it.” And I usually just delete them. But then sometimes I write back, if the letter has some spark of reasonableness; I will say, “Does it explain—does evolution explain gravity? Does it explain the creation of matter? Does it explain the creation of energy? Does it explain physics? Does it explain thermodynamics? Does it explain all the organizing and governing principles of the universe?

And generally speaking, they write back and say, “Well, no it doesn’t.” And then I will say, “Then how can you say it is the basis of everything?” And they will say, “Well it is the basis of the variations in the species” and that I agree with.

As I was reading this quote, it seemed strangely familiar. Where had I heard this before? The lone, unjustly accused person facing the big, bad establishment? Despite the unsavory nature of his opponents—a willingness to be reasonable? The (apparently) sharp accusation rebuffed by a quick wit and rapier reply? The big, bad establishment slinking away after being dealt a death blow?

Then I got it. This is exactly like the tales of Jesus!

But when the Pharisees heard that He had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. Then one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, and saying, "Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?" Jesus said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets." While the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them, saying, "What do you think about the Christ? Whose Son is He?" They said to Him, "The Son of David." He said to them, "How then does David in the Spirit call Him 'Lord,' saying: 'The Lord said to my Lord, "Sit at My right hand, Till I make your enemies Your footstool" '? If David then calls Him 'Lord,' how is He his Son?" And no one was able to answer Him a word, nor from that day on did anyone dare question Him anymore. Matt. 22:34-46

No, Ben Stein does not think he is Jesus. No, he was not mimicking the gospel accounts. But what this does demonstrate is our human nature to “puff up” or tell a fish story that makes us look a little better than those who disagree with us. Make us look a little cleverer.

Often, when talking to lawyers or litigants, I see them go into this sort of trance. Their eyes glaze over, they enter almost a monotone or rehearsed speech in which they play out what they think will happen next.

“I will go in and tell that judge about my legal argument,” eyes glaze, “And there the judge will see how unfair and unjust and unsupported your position. That judge will rule in my favor and will even give me attorney fees for appearing here today.”

(All right. I’m human, too. I’ve engaged in similar fantasies myself, playing out what I think the other side will say, and what I think the judge or jury will do. And how sharp I will be to come up with a response which I will act as if it came completely off-the-cuff but was in reality carefully crafted ahead of time.)

Did Ben Stein get letters from scientists? Possibly. Did such letters tell how stupid he was? Likely. After praising how smart they used to think he was? Not likely. Did the scientist say, “Evolution explains everything”? Maybe. But I wonder about the context.

Does anyone know of a scientist who holds to “evolution explains everything?” It explains how I pick a spouse? Which road to take on the way home? Coke or Pepsi? “Tastes Great” or “Less filling?” The capital of North Dakota?

And do you believe the scientist is stunned into submission—having never once contemplated the notion evolution might not explain gravity? Honestly?

Or is it far more possible Mr. Stein made this conversation up in his mind? Saying what he thought the opponents would say. And replying what he considers quite, quite clever on his part. And proclaiming what he thinks the scientist would be forced to do—wander away properly rebuffed.

This is an old and tired polemic. In the same way, we have Jesus being asked what is supposed (to the author of Matthew) to be a clever and death-dealing question—“What is the greatest commandment?” Yet this response was previously recorded—even in Paul’s works! It was a saying spoken before the gospels were recorded. (Rom. 13:9; Gal. 5:14)

And what is the likelihood the Pharisees would be silenced by one simple question? Part of the Jewish enjoyment of the Tanakh is to wrestle and engage the text. To derive midrash from it. To spend hours contemplating it, perusing it, and digging through its richness.

Like the scientists in Stein’s made-up world, these Pharisees are presented as two-dimensional (at best) characters solely there to give our hero a foil to demonstrate a point.

(And if you think Stein was reasonable in his response, he later goes on, in the interview, to malign evolution for not answering the very questions he says it shouldn’t answer!

Patricia Patty: Why does it matter where we came from? What we believe about how we got here?

Ben Stein: Oh—that’s a very good question, too. It matters a lot because if we are to believe the Darwinian hypothesis that life began with lightning striking a mud puddle then we are basically just specks of animated mud. We don’t have any spark of the divine within us; we have no moral content within us; we don’t have to abide by any rules ‘cause there’s nobody to judge us…uh…so we’re just free to do just anything we want, including murder, rape, steal, maim, torture. And if we are animated by a spark of the divine or if we believe that the divine wants us to act well—that’s a big if—but if we believe that then we have to believe that we have to behave better.

Ben Stein: It is pathetic. Pathetic that the Darwinists have such a grip on the educational process that this cannot even be—that their theories which admittedly don’t even cover the most basic parts of the story such as how do we go from inorganic to organic life—the fact you cannot question a theory that doesn’t even touch on a big issue is astonishing.

I thought he just cleverly informed those scientists evolution shouldn’t touch on this issue. Ah well—consistency is too much to ask.)


  1. Dagoods,

    Great stuff. Your parallel between Jesus and Stein was startling. I wonder how Ben's words will read 2000 years from now?

    Ben asks:
    “Does it explain—does evolution explain gravity? Does it explain the creation of matter? Does it explain the creation of energy? Does it explain physics? Does it explain thermodynamics? Does it explain all the organizing and governing principles of the universe?

    The bible (i.e., the Christian textbook) explains this stuff? Which bible does Ben use?

    But Ben does make me wonder... is "God" "organic" or "inorganic?"

  2. Hi dagoods,
    You might have an apples and oranges situation with these two stories. As one might expect, Jesus comes up smelling like roses while Stein is making the category error of sorts.

    Jesus is talking specifically about a prophecy that the Pharisees had long accepted as divinely inspired although mysterious. When he asked them to explain why the Son of David is also David's lord, they really didn't have an answer unless your answer is the Messiah. I don't care if you agree or not (likely not) but the character in Psalm 110 is anomalous, human and divine, just as Jesus defined himself.

    Now Stein is taking a non-specific response, "evolution explains everything," and stretching the intended meaning of evolution by the scientists to mean something it does not. While it does not explain the origin of life, it doesn't have to explain gravity or the creation of energy et al. All he's pointing out is that the scientist used a word "everything" sloppily, if, as you say, they even said that.

    Now Jesus would have stumped the Pharisees while Stein obviously did not stump the scientists. One can infer that Stein is exaggerating very easily but that the gospel account stretches the truth isn't backed up by the details of the dialog.

    Also the main reason the Pharisees stopped asking questions was that they had decided to kill Jesus. While I think it's not a big stretch that the Son of God might confound a few church people, it wasn't the end of the story nor crucial to it as it is to Stein's account. It's also key to the unfolding of events that the Pharisees' stopped asking questions and start to figure out how to kill him. Thus IMHO, apples and oranges.

  3. **And what is the likelihood the Pharisees would be silenced by one simple question? Part of the Jewish enjoyment of the Tanakh is to wrestle and engage the text. **

    I've seen responses like that on Jewish websites, in that the question Jesus posed would not in fact confound them, but they would have an answer.

    **It matters a lot because if we are to believe the Darwinian hypothesis that life began with lightning striking a mud puddle then we are basically just specks of animated mud.**

    Wow. He really does seem to be maligning evolution for not answering the things that it's not set up to answer, period -- such as how something goes from inorganic to organic. Doesn't evolution starts with the organic portion, and go from there? Doesn't it ask how apes and humans evolved from the common ancestor, rather than what created the very first living entity in the first place?

    Does his movie go along this path?

    **but if we believe that then we have to believe that we have to behave better.**

    I have never liked this reasoning, because if your only motivation is to do good things because you'll be judged on it later, then how is the thing done considered "good?" Isn't part of what defines a good act the motivation? Shouldn't the motivation simply be because the thing is the right thing to do? Otherwise, doesn't the motivation become selfish?

  4. Paul, thanks. Ben Stein (with the rest of us) will probably be long forgotten 2000 years from now. The Bible can be extrapolated to “Goddidit” and therefore it IS an answer for everything. Including, unfortunately, discrimination, genocide, murder, polygamy, slavery, name-calling, etc.

    People can use the Bible to justify just about anything…

    Jim Jordan,

    Weeellll…it may be “apples and oranges”—but it is still both fruit! *wink*

    I agree the situation with Jesus is slightly different in that the culture/society was different. Philosophical discourses were deliberately laid out in protagonist/response still in which a “dummy” or “straight man” served as the philosophers tool to explain their position.

    Now we simply say what we want to say.

    Further, in a honor society, challenge/riposte was a way in which to gain honor over one’s opponent, and part of these confrontations was a justification for why Jesus (a nobody from Galilee) was as honorable, or even more honorable than the Jewish leaders of the time. He had to win them, in order to explain why he had as much (or more) honor than esteemed individuals.

    So I agree there are more nuances with the Jesus vs. Jewish leaders than a simple fish tale.

    However, the basic tactic and principle is the same. There is a reason “David and Goliath” is a stereotype. Why we root for the underdog. Why Hollywood writers interject clever wisecracks and ripping repartee in the hero’s mouth. It is what we expect from our heroes.

    And if one wants to portray themselves as a hero (Stein) or portray another as a hero (Jesus) it is a common fictional tactic to utilize this form.

    I wasn’t intending to get into the “YHWH” vs “adwn” of Psalm 110:1—I was simply using this as one illustration of the many encounters of Jesus against Jewish leaders. The confrontation of the Herodians with taxes or Sadducees with marriage in resurrection, or not washing hands, or healing on Sabbath would have served equally well.

    The difference you (understandably) bring to the table is that you will question Stein’s accuracy, but hold the Gospels as historical. If you held the same level of skepticism to the author of Matthew as you did to Stein, you might see the parallelism. (I am not being critical here—this is simply a matter of Christianity’s acceptance of the tales of the Gospel making us come to the discussion with different aspects.)


    Yeah, evolution is solely dealing with the problem of how species evolve. Not how life came from non-life. The reason theistic evolutionists can be…well…theistic and evolutionists!

    Certainly a naturalist would hold to natural abiogenesis, and presumably evolution—but those are two different questions. To ask evolution to explain abiogenesis shows a remarkable inability to understand what the other side is saying. Sadly deliberate in many cases, I think.

    Note Stein only holds to “divine spark.” Not “alien spark.” Once again demonstrating the God-aspect resounding through Intelligent Design.

    I also find it interesting these folks always head toward the negative. “If there is no divine spark, we could murder, rape and steal.” True, but we can also give, and grow and love. And why do they think we enacted laws, if we thought people were NOT inclined to murder, rape and steal?

  5. If there is no divine spark, we could murder, rape and steal.

    It should be noted that people — not all of them atheists — do in fact murder, rape and steal. If Stein is attempting to establish a proof by contradiction here, he does not quite succeed.

  6. Bit off topic, I know, but I was enraptured by the idea of Stein as Jesus (they're both Jews, after all).

    Al Franken once got a chance to confront Jerry Falwell about the Antichrist. He asked Falwell, "you said a couple of months ago that the Antichrist is alive and is a male Jew. Is that true?" Falwell said yes, and explained that since Christ was a male Jew, then the Antichrist must also be a male Jew. Franken said that he was pretty sure it wasn't himself, so he told Falwell "but I do want to know who it is. I have a theory. I think it's Marvin Hamlisch. Do you think it's Marvin Hamlisch?" Falwell said, "I don't know."