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Movie Review: Religulous

Written by Steve Holt : October 9, 2008

I saw Bill Maher’s Religulous on Saturday night. Maher, along with Borat director Larry Charles, has produced a “scripted comedy” (Maher is careful not to call this a documentary) in which he pokes holes in supernatural belief and its’ wildly different manifestations around the world. To say he targets the lowest common denominators in the interviews he chose for the movie would be a gross understatement; a group of toothless long-haulers at a truck stop church provides the movie’s most heart-warming moment from a spiritual perspective. Besides the truckers, Maher speaks with:

…the curator of the Creation Museum in Hebron, Ky.
…two gay Muslims in Amsterdam.
…a radical, anti-Zionist Rabbi, who, shockingly, frustrated Maher to the point that the slick-haired comedian actually took his mics off and ended the interview.
…a drug-laced Amsterdam man who believes marijuana produces a religious experience.

Again, Maher is not making a documentary, which, by the strictest definition, is more of an objective, journalistic look at a subject from every angle. He produced Religulous with one goal: to demonstrate the stupidity, and ultimately the danger, of religion.

If I were to judge his success solely based on the information given in the film, I probably would not still be a follower of Jesus. But my thought throughout the film - which is side-splittingly hilarious, by the way - was that “this is not the whole story.” In fact, much of the fodder for Maher’s ridicule is not even part of the story.

A 5,000-year-old Earth?
Bling-donning pastors preaching health and wealth?
A Puerto Rican dude who claims to be the anti-Christ?

Is this all you got, Bill? Really?

But as we left a packed Boston theater, I realized that Maher is asking the same questions as many of those exiting around us. The conversations I overheard revealed a deep distrust in institutionalized religion first and foremost, with an openness to the unexplainable and mysterious. For many Americans, Maher is stepping out as the only one willing to publicly say some of these things, and people of faith would do well to listen.

Those of us who do believe (and live, and act, and hope) could have one of two reactions to a movie like this.

1) Boycott it. Undoubtedly, this is the stance of many Evangelical Christians in America. Their view? Maher shows his cards before we ever sit down at the table, and he cheats, smokes, drinks and cusses his way through the poker game. So we’re sitting this game out. Sorry, Bill.
2) Watch it. You’ll laugh right along with your heathen neighbors at the stupidity of the faithful. You’ll cringe at the bad theology. But you’ll be taking a seat at a conversation already in progress, occurring in the back alleys, pubs, book clubs, and universities of the world. Basically everywhere besides the church.

Of course, I hope Christians will choose the latter. But when we see this film, we should remember a couple things. First, resist the temptation to defend religion. Religion binds, harms, and causes its adherents to follow suit. Religion is man-created, and therefore broken. In this film, Maher is simply observing and underscoring what we’ve known for thousands of years: that left to our own devices, humans have always taken the teachings and actions of Jesus and Muhammed and Yahweh and changed and added to them to suit our own selfish desires, leading to some of the worst atrocities history has ever seen. Maher is almost completely correct in his gloomy assessment of religion, the man-made and imperfect institution.

Second, remember that for many of us, there’s an alternative story to Maher’s assessment of religious belief, especially Christianity. At one point, Maher asks an Evangelical who ascribes to a Lehaye-esque End Days theology a thoughtful question: “Doesn’t all this talk about the end of the world prevent Christians from actually improving the world today?” My answer, to quote Sarah Pailin, is “You betcha.” We know that following Jesus means joining the ancient, cosmic rescue operation begun by God through his remnant in Israel, and continued and sealed through the life, death, resurrection and reign of Jesus of Nazareth. As N.T. Wright puts it, Jesus’ death and resurrection doesn’t mean we are saved from the world, but saved into the grand mission of God. Through communities of Christians around the world, God is changing apartment complexes, blocks, cities, and nations into that which God created them to be.

The religion that goes to war, divides over petty issues, and alienates the world [that God so loved] is not true religion. According to James, true religion is the kind that follows Jesus in looking after the most marginalized ones in our society, which in Jesus’ day were widows and orphans.

At the end of the day, my assessment is that like many other agnostics/skeptics/atheists, Maher’s main problem isn’t so much with belief or the person of Jesus, but with fallen believers who choose to follow what he believes is a fairytale instead of actually making the world a better place. He’s also on the offense against absolute certainty among the faithful without doubts or questions … you know, the ones who lean on supposed proven empirical data, the Bible as science text book, and warmed over clichés as their foundations.

These answers simply won’t fly for Maher, whose questions stump nearly everyone with whom he speaks. The clichés and pat answers also won’t fly with most of our neighbors.

I’ll close by returning to the most positive depiction of the faithful Maher gives us in his film, the guys in the truck stop chapel. After the chaplain gives Maher a few minutes to take to the pulpit to ask a few of his biting questions, a number of men leave the service. But a few stick around, politely answering his questions to the best of their ability. They are clearly not Ph.Ds in theology, but they do listen to Maher (a courtesy Maher does not grant to every one of those he speaks with) and then pray for the comedian before he leaves.

As Maher walks away, he has a smile on his face, a genuine look of peace. His departing words to the circle of mostly overweight, toothless rednecks is startling:

“Thank you for being Christ-like, not just Christians.”

Amen, Bill.

Author Bio: Steve Holt is a disciple, writer, husband, and proud father to an apricot mini poodle, and he lives and conspires in East Boston, MA.  You can find his musings about faith, culture, and mission at harvestboston.wordpress.com.




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Comments

Viewing 6 Comments

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    I'm convinced. I'm definately going to see this movie. It sounds like a good laugh, and I've always enjoyed a good poke at man-made religion. I'm sure it will be almost painful to watch the foolish "Christians" spout off nonsense and give the rest of us a bad name, but in the end the truth will stand.

    I hadn't heard of this film until today when I read an article in the newspaper condemning the film for lampooning the faithful. I was surprised from your article, Mark, that Bill does actually end the film on a positive note.
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    Hey Jim...the article was written by Steve Holt. For some reason, it gave my author bio originally, but is now fixed.
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    So, Christianity Today is reporting today that individuals connected with the movie's production were behind a boycott plea video by a "Christian rock band," lovingly called "Rapture Right." =) The stunt was apparently to generate more interest in the film and get people to go see it. Interesting how the traditional Evangelical boycott, to which I refer in this review, is now being turned on its head and used by the other team. Guess it's one more clue into how silly we look sometimes.

    Has anyone else out there seen Religulous? What are your thoughts?
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    Whoops ... here's the link to the RR video, and here's the link to the CT coverage.
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    I don't have the money to see any movies, sorry to say, but if I did and had to choose between Religulous and The Ordinary Radicals I'd certainly go for the latter. Religulous sounds too much like cheap entertainment to me -- empty calories -- where Jamie Moffett's movie is (as far as I can tell) food for thought ...
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    Watch Movies Online 6 days ago
    Maher’s main problem isn’t so much with belief or the person of Jesus, but with fallen believers who choose to follow what he believes is a fairytale instead of actually making the world a better place. He’s also on the offense against absolute certainty
 

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  • Church and Tupperware Parties « HarvestBoston

    October 10, 2008 at 8:29 am

    [...] 2008 · No Comments First off, I review Bill Maher’s comedy, Religulous, over at the Jesus Manifesto zine.  ...

  • Religulous was rediculous «

    October 22, 2008 at 3:17 pm

    [...] was rediculous I read this great review by Steve Holt on Bill Maher’s movie, Religulous, and it convinced me ...

  • Religulous « In the Storyline

    October 27, 2008 at 11:24 pm

    [...] If you enjoyed this post, you’d probably also enjoy a much better review of the movie by my friend ...

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