I saw Bill Maher's Religulous with a fellow Christian who occasionally offers to get me into press screenings. My first instinct was to take a pass, I prefer my faith to be mocked and derided in the style of Monty Python. Friend Jim prevailed. He reminded me that the price of complaining about Bill Maher is actually hearing what the man has to say.
Maher begins by talking about how the three monotheistic religions each have an end-of-the-world mythology and proceeds to tell the viewer how in the 20th century, it became possible for these prophecies to be self-fulfilling. From there he begins a rant showing how silly people who believe in God really are.
As a piece of entertainment, I have to confess to getting a few good laughs out of it. Maher is at his best when simply asking fair questions. To an outsider, talking snakes and virgin births must be quite fantastic, and I see no harm in having sport pointing out how this must look. Born to a Catholic father and Jewish mother he quipped in an ancient Johnny Carson clip to going to confession with his lawyer. One crusty old Catholic priest whose theology was a mere cocktail away from being an east coast Episcopalian makes a good second banana for Maher's Vatican sideshow.
I'd also like to give props to Maher for taking on Islam. It is pretty easy to take a swing at American Christians. American Christians may pray for victory and send our sons and daughters to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, but we generally expect our "holy wars" to be conducted under the laws and customs of land warfare. For all their loathsomeness, the Westborough Baptist Church gang of gay-hating bigots call you nasty names, but do not resort to sticks and stones (and explosive vests). Unlike others who snipe at Jews and Christians secure in the safety of our tolerance, Maher really risks a big fat Fatwa. Big points for guts.
Gutsy points aside, this overall moral equivalence is one of the obnoxious aspects of the whole shtick. Maher interviews a well-turned black pastor. The pastor earns his fair share of ribbing asking Maher to refer to him as Doctor when he has no such pedigree. In the discussion the pastor relates how he advised a young man with a broken heart to turn his passion to God and asks what's wrong with that? The editors immediately cut to a car exploding somewhere in the Middle East, as if a young black Christian is every bit as likely to set off a car bomb as is his Muslim counterpart on the Gaza Strip. The pastor in question is certainly more Elmer Gantry than Billy Graham, but American pastors do not routinely preach the kind of violent hatred you hear from Imams in Europe and the Middle East.
As Maher builds a "religion is the problem" case, he misses a giant pile of exculpatory evidence. Mao's China, Pol Pot's Cambodia and Stalin's Russia were ostensibly no-God-allowed societies, but the millions of corpses who died at the hands of the fully secular state give lie to Maher's central thesis. Eradicating religion does not necessarily a kinder, gentler society make. Also missing among the "God Hates Fags" signs and explosions are the hospitals, universities, schools, soup kitchens and social service agencies maintained by religious organizations. Maher claims that agnostics represent 16% of the population, but so far they have not built 16% of the nation's charities (unless you count voting for Democrats).
The obnoxiousness does not stop there. I was particularly appalled at his grilling of a group of men gathering for worship at a truckers' chapel. A skinny black man was serving as chaplain and a group of various men were trying to answer Maher's questions. One man left in outrage, and the rest bravely struggled and stammered to give an answer but they were no match for a professional stand-up comedian. Maher ended that segment for thanking them for acting Christ-like (which I actually thought was halfway decent on Maher's part) but I felt very defensive of my brothers who were made to look foolish.
Ideally any Christian would be prepared to give a defense of his or her faith, but not every Christian is rigged to cope with the tougher questions of the faith, such as the problem of evil. In one segment, Maher is interviewing an actor who plays Jesus in a Holy Land theme park in Florida. Maher asks the long-locked thespian why God doesn't just destroy the Devil. Our intrepid Jesus Impersonator gives a passionate but wholly unsophisticated answer. Given that Maher could get a whole series of eloquent, well-reasoned and thorough answers to this question in a quarter-second Google search indicates to me that the question is not asked in good faith. Maher is not looking for an answer, he is asking a gotcha question aimed at making the man in the funny outfit and long hair look stupid. Guys like Maher, despite their enlightenment and superior secular sophistication, seem to be unable to muster the simple virtue of being polite. Maher comes out looking like a bully.
Noticeably absent from the film are philosophers and thinkers who are more in Maher's weight class. Rick Warren would be a better person to answer some of the tough questions on theology, but I doubt this media-savvy Evangelical would have been as amusing a target. Sound bites from Tim Keller, Greg Koukl or Lee Strobel may have been less easy to carve into bon mots of mirthful derision.
That said, I am pretty confident that solid answers to Maher's questions were lost from the high emplacements of the editing system. A scientist who is a Christian begins to give an answer. I sounded like an apologetic on the nature of documentary and testimonial evidence, a reasonable response to some of Maher's jibes about the Gospels. The man is cut off in for shots of Maher looking at the camera incredulously. Maher sojourns to Ken Ham's Creation Museum built to present an alternative to Darwinism in a modern science-center atmosphere and proceeds to get a long series of grimaces on film that make Ham look small and silly. I met Ken Ham some time ago at a conference. I know that he is a serious thinker, and has better answers than those found in this "documentary".
Despite all this, I think Maher bears a gift to a certain segment of the Christian family, those of us who have faith and want to share our faith effectively. As Burns wrote: "O wad some Power the giftie give us -- To see ourselves as others see us!" I did not run from the theater ready to empty my God-shaped hole of its back-fill of Jesus and refill it with whores, drugs and gambling. It is important for some of us who believe to see this film, painful as it is. We do believe some amazing things, and there is a humbling tonic to be had seeing our faith through the eyes of someone profoundly hostile and uninterested in sparing our feelings.