Tuesday, November 25, 2008


The local, non-chain theater in town, the Warner Theater, was evidently the only theater in town with enough guts to show Bill Maher's film Religulous. A couple men from the congregation I serve and I went to see the film the other night. I admit that I laughed openly at many scenes, because Maher was very good at bringing out the ludicrous side of religion. Irony is prevalent in heavy doses as Maher preches his gospel of disbelief...

And ultimately that is what he is doing... and he is free to do so, but I think his opening of the film leads us to think that he is on a quest of sorts to explore religion. The opening scene starts us at Megiddo, the site where Jesus is supposed to return (note: Armageddon is linguistically connected to Megiddo... transliteration can do funny things... but hopefully you can see the connection). But we are quickly transported to the site of the parish in which he grew up. Sitting with him are his mother and sister. There they talk about their upbringing, where he, his sister and father went to Mass weekly. His mother stayed at home, since she is Jewish.

The presence of his family and the conversation which ensues does lend the film with an air that Maher is seeking some sort of explanation of all this religious stuff. And then he hits the road looking for various expressions of religion and his conversation with them... I must say, however, that conversation is not at all what happens. Maher does find the absurd in his conversations with others and squeezes that for all its worth. He talks to experts, which seems to lend credibility to his endeavor, but then moves away from their area of expertise. Take for example his conversation with Frances Collins, the former director of the Human Genome Project and author of The Language of God. Rather than conversing with him on issues surrounding faith and reason or even evolution (hey, wouldn't a molecular biologist be able to talk fairly eloquently about evolution?), Maher grills Collins on the biblical notion of the virgin Mary and Jesus' birth to her. He doesn't ask, "How can a scientist believe in the virgin birth?" He asks questions pertaining more to biblical scholarship, "Why don't all four gospels agree on this?" Instead he asks the Senator from Arkansas about evolution, who of course, knowing his constituency, refuses to claim any belief for or against evolution. Wouldn't a conversation about the role of faith in the political sphere been more appropriate for that venue? Well, with a Senator who is more concerned with not letting his constituents know exactly what he believes for fear that they might boot him out of office, Maher was unlikely to get an honest conversation on any topic.

Of course, Maher isn't really out to have an honest conversation. He wants to ridicule and embarrass. After the film, I thought Religulous had a great resonance with the film Borat, and I included the poster above, because I saw there that Religulous is directed by Larry Charles, the director of Borat. Now it all makes perfect sense. All of the brilliant editing to show the awkward pauses and people stammering, the catching off guard with sudden changes in the direction of conversation, all of it works to ensure that Maher is always in the position of power, in control of the conversation and never allowing the other to be on an equal playing field. The only time when Maher is challenged and we feel that the balance of power shift ever so slightly (when he is talking with the Rabbi who believes that the state of Israel should not exist because they had been living securely throughout the world--ludicrous, I know), Maher walks out. This walking out is reminiscent of an earlier scene when Maher is at the Trucker's Chapel in North Carolina. One astute trucker gets up and walks out. He hears Maher questioning things and I think he realizes that the playing field isn't even, that Maher isn't genuine in seeking but simply seeking to sow doubt. And of course at the end of the movie Maher admits that sowing doubt is precisely his intent.

But enough about Maher... what I have been reflecting on is the incredibly poor job that Christians did in being able to answer questions with anything other than stock and cliched answers. Many of the Christians portrayed have the by-and-by-in-the-sky vision of Christianity where all that matters is that we believe in Jesus so that we go to heaven when we die. They answer with sincerity, but they are just as unable to converse, as Maher is unwilling. They rely on the logic of apologetics, but they forget that those apologetics are rooted in the proclamation of the gospel. They are unable to converse with Maher, because they are too busy trying to explain. And when they do that, they allow Maher every opportunity to produce sound bites that make Christianity look ridiculous.

The actor who portrays Jesus in the Holy Land Experience Park in Orlando, FL attempts to explain the existence of God by having Maher feel the wind. We can't see it, but we can feel the wind around us when it blows. But ultimately the effects of wind can be measured. We can break air down into its component parts of atoms, understand how variations in temperature and pressure on a global scale cause that air to move and blow. The experience of God is incredibly more subjective than that and not all of us who believe that Jesus is Lord have had any experience... we just know. This actor also breaks out the hackneyed ice-water-steam explanation of the Trinity. Once again, I see a Christian who sees the doctrine of the Trinity as some arcane bit of philosophical reasoning that helps Christianity maintain its claim of monotheism. We pastors and theologians fail to teach that the Trinity is not about what God is, but precisely WHO God is, and that this identity as Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is good news for all of us. In the end though, Maher picked apart many pieces of Christian doctrine: Original sin, Virgin birth, inspiration of Scripture, etc. Only once did we see any particular Christian practice happen... back in the Trucker's Chapel, at the end of that segment, Maher is prayed for by the Truckers. They gather around him and one trucker lays his gargantuan hand on Maher and immediately breaks into prayer for Maher. Maher looked uncomfortable, perhaps surprised by the sudden and genuine outpouring over him. There, in prayer, is the entry to the Christian life. Maybe the playing field wasn't so uneven after all.



literate cat said...

What a wonderful, heartfelt blog entry and review. This should be published in the Charleston Gazette. I can help with that because I write for them. This they would put on the Religion page in the Sunday Gazette Mail. Please post on my site prayforbillmaher.com. I am going to tell my webmaster to link to you. I have not been able to see the movie yet. Will you help me get the word out? Also, I LOVE that you are looking at the idea of pastor as theologian in your blog. (This thing says I am posting at literate cat. I don't know what that is. Maybe something my husband was doing.) Tracy Herz

Brian said...

I have to make one correction here... I have found out since writing this posting that the big box theaters in Morgantown both showed Religulous. Evidently it didn't last long in either of those theaters.