Friday, March 06, 2009

    FILM REVIEW: Bill Maher's "Religulous"

    Do moderate and mainline religious groups encourage extremist and violent fundamentalist religions? This is just one premise explored by comedian and political commentator Bill Maher in his documentary "Religulous." For those who have a thick skin when it comes to their religious convictions, this film will likely be entertaining and, I have to admit, it is pretty darn funny. At the same time, Maher's ultimate intent is to assert that religion (particularly of the Muslim, Jew, and Christian varieties) has been nothing but bad for the human race.

    Of course, he stacks the deck pretty high, choosing to focus on those who justify their violent actions through the haze of religious piety and on believers who couldn't argue their way out of a wet paper sack when it comes to defending their religious convictions. In particular, Maher interviews Muslims who seem unable to to face the reality of the violence perpetrated by Islamic extremists and Christians at places such as a Holy Land theme park, a chapel for truckers, and even a senator's office who seem lost when it comes to defending the historicity of talking snakes, men living inside whales for three days, and virgin births. Given the folks he talks to, particularly those who think faith is simply accepting a set of beliefs without question or much thought, it is no wonder that Maher reaches the conclusions that he does:
    Faith means making a virtue out of not thinking. It's nothing to brag about. And those who preach faith, and enable and elevate it, are our intellectual slaveholders - keeping mankind in a bondage to fantasy and nonsense that has spawned and justified so much lunacy and destruction. Religion is dangerous, because it allows human beings who don't have all the answers to think that they do.
    The closest Maher, himself raised Catholic, comes to talking to a progressive or liberal Christian is in his interviews with two priests. One priest asserts that the Church long ago gave up on such nonsense as hell and everybody should know that the stories in the Bible are just stories. The other, an astronomer with the Vatican, reminds us that science did not even come along until two thousand years after the Biblical texts were written, so how in the world could we possibly assert that the Bible contains any science at all? Perhaps if Maher had also talked with some progressive Christians for whom faith is primarily about peace, justice, and radical inclusion, the film might have felt a little more balanced. But in Maher's assessment, all religion is harmful. And those of us who practice the moderate variety, in his opinion, are just giving a cover of mainstream legitimacy to the more extremist individuals hidden within our ranks.

    Were it not for the language and (very) brief nudity in the film, I'd see some real value in using this film in a discussion with high school youth. Even at his most insensitive, Maher raises real questions that deserve to be answered by those of us who follow scriptures that are full of stories of violence, misogyny, tribal warfare, and peculiar sexual morality (fortunately, I've yet to have a student ask me if it's okay to have multiple wives like so many of the guys in the Old Testament). We should be equipping our young people not to wrap themselves in a security blanket of religious dogma but rather to chase after the questions, wrestle with doubt, struggle with different perspectives, and seek a deeper, richer and ever more mature understanding of this faith that calls us to lives centered in the love of God. If that sort of thinking makes me "religulous" be it!



    Kwinn said...


    I really believe most people don't care about truth. Most people want to feel good about themselves and who they are, and truth doesn't reveal that to us. For the first time in my life I experienced persecution, not physically, but indeed persecution for Jesus. We were praying as a group at a local outdoor shopping area, and we were approached by the head of security and told that we could not share Jesus Christ with anyone or even pray as a group or we would be escorting off the property and be labeled as trespassing. I do believe I understand some of the hard questions in the Bible, but I believe God has given me an understanding so my trust and love for Him is solid, not to go argue and defend my faith to people who really don’t care or desire true logic or reason; let’s just say we do fully understand them. You know all the truth there is to know and God has given you wisdom like Solomon. People choose to reject the truth. You can’t even reason with most people in America. I don't care if you answer all the great questions in the world... people love their sins and don't want to be set free from it. The only un forgivable sin is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. We know that God will forgive every sin, but this one is unique. We know to receive forgiveness we need to repent and ask for it, and God is faithful and just to forgive us. Here is the thing though... if you always reject the truth of Gods grace... it isn't that you can't be forgiven... it's that you will never get to a point of asking, so you won't receive forgiveness. I had three experiences last night of true rejection. It does however make me very grateful of Gods grace. He took the scales off of my eyes and softened my heart, and I am thankful to Him alone for that. I don’t forcefully evangelize either, so it wasn’t like overbearing. I usually like to see what people believe, then I tell them what I believe. We have a truth that is so good, that we shouldn’t want to keep it to ourselves if we really love our neighbors as ourselves. If other people have something so good that they can’t live without in their life… I am open to listen, but we know that isn’t the case with an unbeliever… they are empty. Yes they can be good people to us, they can be morally just to us, yes they can love, and do good deeds. They can never meet Gods standard of righteousness on their own merit though, but they don’t care. Maybe people are turned off by most Christians, and it is possible for people to blaspheme Gods name because of us. It happened with the Israelites.
    Ezekiel 36:22 (New International Version)
    22 "Therefore say to the house of Israel, 'This is what the Sovereign LORD says: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am going to do these things, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you have gone.
    We, Christians, take the Lords name in vain not only with our mouths… but with our lifestyle. We serve other Gods, materialism, education, selfish desires, and it doesn’t honor God. People look at people who call themselves Christian and say if that is what a relationship with God is… I don’t want it. Talk to some strangers about what they think about Christians… we would all be sad to hear what they have to say.
    Brian, please check out the Revival Hymn on you-tube. There are some good nuggets about people loving their state and not wanting to change from the truth.
    However, your right we should desire to understand the hard questions, because there are people who need to hear that and God will unlock their hearts and they will receive the Lord, but look at Paul and Jesus… they were constantly rejected. Paul must have been discouraged a lot, because everywhere he went… people didn’t want the truth. That is a hard thing to deal with, because we want people to experience the love and grace of God.

    dwarner517 said...

    Hi Brian

    thanks for the great post — in fact the whole site! Your comment - "wrestle with doubt, struggle with different perspectives, and seek a deeper, richer and ever more mature understanding of this faith" - resonated with me. I am a Catholic teaching 7th & 8th graders and this is exactly what I am trying to do. I recently taught the 10 commandments and tried to get them to think beyond the basics. In reference to stealing, we talked about stealing someone's reputation and stealing our own future through drugs and alcohol. Since coveting someone's wife does not strike a chord with most 13 year olds, we talked about respecting relationships including friendships and and the marriage of our parents.

    I have gotten some great ideas from your site and am in fact going to do a lesson on Creative Prayer next month.

    Thanks, hope you know you are appreciated.

    Brian said...

    Kwinn - thanks for an interesting reflection. I agree that we must be prepared, when sharing our faith, that others will reject what we are offering -- sometimes because they don't understand the true nature of our message, and sometimes because they DO. This does not make it any less important for us to work to share the good news.

    Doris, thank you for the compliments. Always good to know that we are of help to fellow youth workers. Your approach to the 10 commandments sounds great! I remember reading some commentary by John Shelby Spong once on the 10 commandments and it helped me to understand that they are much more difficult to understand, and apply in modern culture, than we may have been lead to believe growing up. Your efforts to make them relevant, it seems to me, is exactly what we need to be doing for our young people!


    Mike said...

    Honestly, I thought the movie was a waste of time. Kind of like Ben Stein's movie about evolution. Certainly it was not a documentary...he didn't even pretend to listen to or engage anybody, and (like all sensationalist "documentary-types") used editing to make his "interview-ees" look as stupid as possible.

    Of course, it wasn't anything unexpected. But good for conversation? Hardly...use "Saved" or "Jesus Camp" instead...they were more interesting, engaging, and even perhaps more "fair"

    Brian said...

    I completely agree that he did very little listening to others. In fact, if you watch the outtakes on the DV, there is at least on interview he clearly cut because the interviwee refused to let Maher cut him off until he'd said his peace. And I wholeheartedly agree that "Jesus Camp" and "Saved" are great films to get converstation going, especially with young people.

    Greg said...

    Bill Maher is right on track. Organized religions do nothing more than attack and try to scare anyone outside of their sect. There is a God, who created the universe and who created evolution. The bible was written and rewritten by man. There is no hell and nobody should fear God. We are not all being individually watched or listened to. These enormous expensive churches are ridiculous and if someone wants to be closer to God, they should take a walk outside and experience nature.