October 5, 2008

Religulous (10/05/08)

Lettergrade: C

I never miss an episode of HBO's Real Time With Bill Maher, but I tune-in knowing full-well that Maher's show is to political debate as the World Wrestling Federation is to professional sports. That is to say, the show is blustery and fun, but basically for entertainment purposes only. Maher's guests are either there to agree with what he and the audience already think or to serve as feeble ambassadors for the conservative right who are basically there to get punched in the face.

I have pretty similar feelings about Maher's new documentary, Religulous, as well. It's sorta Maher's attempt to make a Michael Moore style discussion piece about the broad, broad topic of faith and organized worship, only with a little less objectivity, if you can believe it. Maher's key point is that it's stupid. He feels that way when the first frame appears, and hasn't changed by the time the credits roll. And apart from underlining some of the well-known hypocrisies within Judeo-Christian religion and its many subsets, he doesn't really find a way to approach the material in a way that's enlightening, comprehensive, or persuasive. It's an entertaining picture, mind you, but I'm not convinced that a single bit of it will change anyone's mind about anything.

Although I'm not terribly religious myself, I - like a lot of people I know - have no problem with religion in general provided it is not used as an excuse to make life difficult for another group of people, particularly if you're gay, or if you worship another god, etc. Although he never addresses this in the film, I suspect Maher's key issues with religion center around the guilt it can produce (doubly so if you're Catholic, which Maher's father was), and with the 13% of the country who tend to vote primarily with religious issues and against their self-interests.

Part of what struck me about this film is how big of an asshole Maher is to the people he interviews. I have no problem with Maher picking on Televangelists, politicians, and people who preach intolerance, but I found myself squirming more than once when he assaulted seemingly benign people on the street. What about the guy who runs a second-hand store for Jews For Jesus who says he's convinced there's something better for him in the afterlife? "Well if that's true," Maher counters, "why don't you just kill yourself right now?" I don't know much about that organization, but if the guy deserves to be treated with that kind of cruelty, the film sure doesn't help you understand that before Maher goes on the attack.

Maher also visits a small church at a North Carolina truck stop, presumably with the idea that he can get some laughs out of the truckers who merely want to attend some kind of service while on their way from one spot to the next. He similarly drops in on Orlando, Florida's Holyland And Gospel Tour theme park, at which actors recreate the Crucifixion thrice daily. I've gotta admit that this last one is pretty fucking crazy, but again I bristle at Maher picking on the actors in the show and assaulting tourists who just happened to be visiting that day. Maher comes out ahead in the verbal sparring, of course, but that may not be surprising as he's hosted late-night chat shows since 1994 and has been a professional comedian for much longer.

While he's doing all this, other topics go woefully under-explored. I was really interested, for example, when Maher told one of his victims about Mithra, a Persian deity who lived some time before Jesus was thought to, and who shares virtually the same life story, right up to his crucification and resurrection a few days later. Mithra's not alone: There are many Messiah figures throughout the history of religion who all have similar biographies, not the least of whom is King David from the Bible's own Old Testament, who has many of Jesus's admirable qualities, but many many flaws on top of that. If there's a case to be made for looking at the Bible as a series of complex metaphors on how one's life ought to be lived, rather than as a literal truth, I suspect it lies first in educating people about what Christianity has in common with religions that predate it. That aside, though, what about the fact that the Bible's key themes are about tolerance, love, acceptance, and forgiveness... key tenants that certain practitioners of it seem to forget when pushing certain agendas.

Again, the flick has plenty of laughs and occasionally some good food-for-thought, but by the time Maher gets to his big apocalyptic rant at the end of the movie, he acts like something important has been achieved, and I frankly have no idea of what he thinks that something might be. Of course, I'm not naive enough to believe any one movie can single-handedly unsort these issues anyway, but by playing picture more to a broad audience rather than to people who probably already shared Maher's opinion going in, it might have at least done a little more than preach to the converted.

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