07 January 2009

On presuppositions . . .

Posted by at 2:51 PM Read our previous post
One of my favorite films in recent years was The Messenger, the dramatized story of Joan of Arc starring Milla Jovovich as Joan. A fantastic film. There is a scene near the end of the film, after she has been arrested and after her trial has already commenced, where she finds herself alone in her cell. She uses the chains on her wrists to carve a crude cross upon the wall, whereupon she begins to pray—desperately, chaotically. Suddenly, we see a hooded man in her cell who had not been there previously. It is the figure that represents her "voices," in this case played wonderfully by Dustin Hoffman, who proceeds to interrogate Joan as to why she thinks that her mission was divinely inspired.

  • (Joan) - The sword lying in the field. That was a sign.
  • (her Voices) - No, that was a sword in a field.
  • (JºA) - No. No! That was a sign.
  • (V) - No, that was a sword in a field.
  • (JºA) - It can't just get there by itself, huh? It can't! A sword just doesn't get there by itself. It can't just get there by itself!
  • (V) - Proof! Every event has an infinite number of causes, so why pick one rather than another. There are many ways that a sword might find itself in a field.

(At this point, the scene changes to show a montage of various possible scenarios in which the sword could have ended up in the field, which her Voice enumerates in a calm and rational manner. The first brief scene in the montage shows a group of horsemen speeding through the field. They come to a small creek, a mini ravine, which they each jump over in sequence, without stopping or slowing down. When the last of the four or five soldiers has done so, we can see that the jump has jostled his sword free from his saddle and we see it fall, unnoticed, on the ground.)

  • (V) - Seems like a perfectly valid explanation. But how about this one:

(The scene changes to a battle between two swordsmen in the field. They are engaged in heated battle, whereupon one soldier's sword goes flying from his hand as his foe delivers the fatal blow.)

  • (V) - But then again, there are other possibilities:

(The next piece shows a man running from some soldiers that are pursuing him. In his panic and desperation, he drops his sword and keeps running.)

  • (V) - Or even faster:

(A man is shown similarly running from soldiers at a distance. One of them positions himself to shoot an arrow at him. The arrow finds its mark and the fugitive man drops his sword and falls to the ground.)

  • (V) - And that's without counting the inexplicable:

(Here we see a man calmly walking through a field alone. For seemingly no reason that we can discern, he simply tosses his sword to the side into the open field.)

  • (V) - Yet from an infinite number of possibilities, you had to pick this one:

(We now see a beautiful, mystical-looking sky, from which a big bright ray of light is coming down upon the field, inside of which a horizontal sword slowly descends down to the ground while angelic choirs sing in the background. — Cut to Joan's face, which reveals deep anguish, with tears welling in her eyes. She is distraught by the truth of what the Voice is telling her.)

  • (V) - You didn't see what was, Joan. You saw what you wanted to see.

I have been reminded of this poignant scene many times since I first saw this film, particularly when I encounter Christian apologists who insist that the resurrection of Jesus must have happened literally the way it was portrayed in the gospels, or when I encounter those who insist that the proto-creed embedded in 1st Corinthians 15 must be an accurate historical record of Jesus having appeared in the flesh after his resurrection to over five hundred people simultaneously.

This was the case a few days ago. Responding to a post on NT Wrong's blog in which he offered a tenable rational explanation to trace why the stories of J's resurrection seem to have evolved from stories about appearances to indivuduals to stories about appearances to whole crowds (a very good theory, I might add, involving the concepts of genre and analogue and rejecting a literalist exegesis), a commenter said the following:

“It is a presupposition against supernaturalism to say that one is more likely than the other …”

In much the same way that I object to a defense of the historicity of the resurrection that appeals to “the blood of the martyrs” as evidence . . . . it irks me to hear this kind of thing. Such a statement implies that supernaturalist hermeneutic is equivalent to a naturalistic one, and that to choose one over the other is just as subjective as selecting a pair of socks to wear on a given day. Personally, I think that such a presupposition against supernaturalism is a useful one when trying to make sense of evidence, and is furthermore a good and healthy one for people to possess in general.

I can understand why an apologist (whose aim is to defend her faith at all cost) could close her mind to this kind of rationalization, but a thing that intrigues me to no end is that, when an apologist makes this kind of claim, the reasonable scholar who rightly chooses the naturalistic explanation over the "magical" one almost invariably denies having a naturalistic presupposistion. They reject such a notion. Is this something that is stressed in the schools or something?

Why is it such a bad thing to hold to a naturalist hermeneutic when trying to methodologically and scientifically study ancient texts?

I just don't get it.





  1. Very good post again. Now I may watch Joan of Arc after all.

  2. Anonymous8:26 AM

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. I think I will stop allowing anonymous comments on this blog.

    Grow some balls or shut up.



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