As their weapon of choice against the Christ Myth hypothesis (“mythicism”), theologians, religion and Biblical scholars appear from where I stand to regularly deploy the instruments of propaganda. The motivations appear to me to be to maintain
- their status and reputation in a society infested with critical and anti-establishment influences, and
- their control over the terms of religious debates, dictating what are legitimate topics for review and what are not.
I use the term “propaganda” because it’s yet another valid way of explaining what is happening. Simpler expressions are “labeling” and “framing the debate”. Adding the concept of “propaganda” to the list might help us understand more clearly what is actually happening in these “discussions”.
To me the word “propaganda” stands for the opposite of true education, democratic or honest intellectual engagement and dialogue. Here’s a description of “what propaganda is” from some passages from the classic article “The Theory of Political Propaganda” by Harold Lasswell and first published (as far as I am aware in 1927) in the American Political Science Review:
Propaganda is the management of collective attitudes by the manipulation of significant symbols . . . Collective attitudes are amenable to many modes of alteration . . . But their arrangement and rearrangement occurs principally under the impetus of significant symbols; and the techniques of using significant symbols for this purpose is propaganda. . . . [As opposed to education] propaganda to the creation of valuational dispositions or attitudes. [What I would call honest dialogue] implies the search for the solution of a besetting problem with no desire to prejudice a particular solution in advance. The propagandist is very much concerned about how a specific solution is to be evoked and “put over.” And though the most subtle propaganda closely resembles disinterested deliberation, there is no difficulty in distinguishing the extremes. (my bolding)
Propaganda, I suggest, is the primary weapon used by the academy of biblical scholars and theologians against the Christ Myth theory. I have encountered very few genuine efforts of academics to “educate” the public (that is, “educate” as opposed to sway them by “propaganda”, given that “propaganda” is a process akin to “indoctrination”) or even to “educate” their peers of the deficiencies in any one of the “mythicist” cases.
One of the key characteristics of propaganda is that it manipulates symbols with the intent of bringing about social control. The symbols must have major significance for the audience, significant enough for them to hold real power over tan audience’s emotional reactions — “ideally, symbols of the Sacred and the Satanic.” (Alex Carey, Taking the Risk Out of Democracy, p. 12)
Understand the power of symbols.
Symbols are related to the psychological phenomenon of the stereotype. A stereotype is a seeming value judgment, acquired by belonging to a group, without any intellectual labor. . . The stereotype arises from the feelings one has for one’s group, or against the “out-group.” . . . In propaganda, existing stereotypes are awakened by symbols. (Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, p. 163)
Probably the most used symbol in the propaganda war against mythicism is “The Scholar”. This symbol has siblings: “peer review”, “published in a reputable/academic journal”, “PhD”, “scholarly training”, “skilled in relevant languages”, to identify some.
Now I know some people will jump on that above sentence and accuse me of suggesting that “scholarly training” and being “skilled in biblical languages” are nothing more than worthless empty symbols. And such an effort will itself be demonstrating how propaganda works. By ignoring nuance they will be reinforcing the power of the symbol itself and the mechanics of propaganda. They will be reaffirming that “The Scholar” is sensible, wise, naturally right, while the critic who is associated with the enemy, “mythicism”, is vacuous, unavoidably silly, dumb and risible.
Recall the Sacred and the Satanic.
The Scholar thus is the symbol of the wise and sensible and knowledgable; and the target “mythicist” falls into the very opposite of all that the Scholar symbol represents.
The important thing to note is that none of this is an intellectual engagement. It is a manipulation of attitudes. It is an emotive appeal to the public to side with what they innately know is right, with the wise and good, and to eschew the opposite of what is right and healthy.
Mythicists are associated with the “Satanic” symbols: fundamentalists, creationists, holocaust-deniers, anti-intellectuals, parallelomaniacs, self-published, unpublished, amateurs, unskilled, untrained, bloggers . . . .
But propaganda must appear to be realistic and honest (Ellul, p.240). So where there are PhDs among the mythicist this must be recognized; and where questions raised by mythicism are also questions asked by The Trained and Published Scholars, this too must be acknowledged. Yes, even Scholars have wondered why Paul does not write more about the historical Jesus; yes, Brodie and Carrier and Price are “real scholars” but we must regrettably (with the respect always due to fellow Scholars) call them failed colleagues who are no better than all that is opposed to “real scholarship”.
The message is again conveyed through the game with the symbols.
Recall how Bart Ehrman, James McGrath, Maurice Casey, Rabbi Joseph Hoffmann, Larry Hurtado, have all ostensibly addressed some particular argument of mythicists. They have, I submit, consistently embedded their arguments within the language of the symbol. The mythicist is an ex-fundamentalist on a crusade against Christianity, he is an outsider, not a real scholar, and so forth. At the same time enough of the mythicist argument will be acknowledged — remember propaganda must always appear to be honest — to give the impression that the Scholar is indeed living up to all that his status as a Scholar implies.
The manipulation of symbols is necessary for three reasons. First of all, it persuades the individual to enter the framework of an organization. Second, it furnishes him with reasons, justifications, motivations for action. Third, it obtains his total allegiance. (Ellul, p. 23)
There is no room for shades of grey. You are with us Scholars or against us. Actually, not so much “with us” as “following us”, “listening to us”, “respecting us and what we say”. The audience is meant to believe it has the only sensible and good reason possible for embracing the wisdom of the Scholars.
And where does all this end?
The reason propaganda-talk is necessary is because there is genuine disagreement between those who speak up within the academy and some who speak out from without the academy. Some people are disturbed by legitimate questions and plausible arguments that challenge the traditional wisdom of the establishment elites.
So what happens to these contradictions, questions, doubts when propaganda spearheaded by the elites and their lackeys enters?
As in all propaganda, the point is to make man endure, with the help of psychological narcotics, what he could not endure naturally, or to give him, artificially, reasons to continue his work and to do it well. This is the task of propaganda. . . . (Ellul, p. 225)
Jacques Ellul is thinking of political propaganda to keep the working classes hard at it despite poor conditions and inadequate reward. But the same point applies to mental labour. The many points of confusion, of contradictions, of unanswered questions, can be endured if one emotionally sides with The Scholars. Those who are not “real Scholars” and who find ways of removing these confusions, contradictions and unanswered questions by constructing models that are alien to those constructed or inherited by the Real Scholars can offer nothing of value because they are not, well, “Real Scholars”. Their answers are by definition “unscholarly”. So the emotive power of the symbol of the wise and knowledgeable is enough to cause some of the audience to endure what become merely “apparent” contradictions, etc.
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