This was supposed to be about Nickelback, but that will have to keep for next time, or another time. By all indications, that horrible Canadian band will still be here by the time I get around to tearing into them with vituperative insight.
The delay was caused by the release of Religulous on DVD in mid-February. This is, of course, the “documentary” from comedian and talk-show host Bill Maher and Borat director Larry Charles, and I put the term in quotes because Maher and Charles seek less to illuminate the subject of religion than to make light of it.
I am, it must be said, not against this. I will not share with you the stories of how I came to be a non-believer—such stories are almost always as boring as those of the born-again and otherwise converted—but now you know I am one, at least. And I have read many of the recent anti-religious books, including Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, Sam Harris’s The End of Faith, and of course Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great.
(Ann Coulter had a book whose title, Godless, could easily place it among the others, but that title was meant as an insult to non-believers. The actual text was an insult to intelligence, proper research, and sanity, and then there is the fact that Coulter hotly believes that more religion would benefit the world, so long as it is the correct religion.)
Such a method would, theoretically, not have required Maher to venture much further than his own California backyard, but he and Charles racked up the miles in traveling from London to Amsterdam to Megiddo, Israel. This last location, seen at the beginning and the end of the film, is a rough framing device of seriousness: Megiddo is, according to the Bible, the site for Armageddon.
Inside the frame, however, Maher and Charles make good on their title, ridiculing Orthodox Jews, Christians, Muslims in Amsterdam, an ex-Jew for Jesus, Mormons, and Scientologists. Interestingly, they don’t include religions commonly considered “Eastern,” such as Hinduism or Buddhism, even though such supposedly laid-back faiths have produced a considerable amount of violence, bigotry, and hatred. But the negative results of those faiths don’t get much media play in the United States.
This is probably just as well for Hindus and Buddhists and other omitted believers, because Religulous often has the air of a particularly ripe episode of “Jaywalking,” the late-night feature in which Jay Leno appears to run into no one but the most ignorant, unthinking people in the nation. It doesn’t help that Maher’s default facial expression is that moment before a smirk, which is only encouraged by magical Mormon underwear and a museum in which dinosaurs co-exist with humans.
A handful of sympathetic believers do emerge: the more-miles-than-money drivers at a truckstop chapel in North Carolina are emblems of simple faith; a Vatican astronomer deftly lays out the history of Scripture and science; and the fellow who plays Jesus at Holy Land, a Christian theme park in Florida, is charmingly earnest. It’s not easy to call any of these people deluded or foolish (even if they are), and certainly they are not about to spread their views with violence or threats.
Maher and Charles acknowledge this, even as they fill the screen with images of angry believers, gunfire, explosions, and a few nuclear mushroom clouds for good measure. At the end of the film, this montage and Maher’s words form a kind of serious hysteria that contrasts jarringly with the snickering mockery that precedes it. Maher offers the choice: “Grow up — or die”; that is, ditch religion in favor of rationalism, or follow religious visions to Megiddo.
It’s not a bad command (or commandment), but Maher and Charles spend so little time delving into the fuller definition of religion — the sense of community it can foster, for example — that even those who agree with Religulous might find it a shallow troll into a subject of immense depth. It tries to win an argument it barely begins to make.
And it is an argument worth making, a discussion worth having. The cinema has been surfeited with Biblical and religious films for years, and Religulous is among the very few attempts to convey the opposite viewpoint. (To find another example that got at least as much media coverage, one has to go back to 1979’s Monty Python’s Life of Brian, which was also a comedy; it was less deliberately sacrilegious, but it did have the splendid working title Jesus Christ: Lust for Glory.)
It is often very funny, and often correct in its claims, but it is also an opening salvo, rather than a parting shot. And it deserves at least as wide an audience as The Passion of the Christ.