November 4, 2008 -- “Religulous” is a very funny take on the state of the major monotheistic religions today (it does not deal with Buddhism, Hinduism or other Asian, African or native religions). Noted comic, commentator and agnostic Bill Maher, uses this film to take pot shots at Catholics, Protestants, Mormons, Muslims, Jews and Scientologists. He points out that non-believers are a sizable minority (16 percent) in the United States, larger than many other minorities, but having less political clout than most. He also makes it clear that he doesn't want to be represented in Washington by people who believe in a talking snake and who think all the astronomers, geologists and biologists in the world are wrong about how old the Earth and the Universe are and how humans evolved from lower forms of life. In other words Bill Maher, in this film, is discussing a subject that is taboo, faith.
The amount of frequent flyer miles logged by Maher in this documentary style film is impressive. He opens and closes the film at Meggido in Israel's Jezreel Valley, the site of the future apocalyptic battle, Armageddon, foretold in the Bible. He also travels to England, Italy, The Netherlands and a number of places around the United States, including the Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Fla., a creationism museum in Kentucky and a trucker's chapel in North Carolina. Somehow, Maher manages to get a film crew into the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, a place that Jews are not usually allowed to enter, but gets chased off the grounds of the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, Utah by some sort of Mormon cops. He also gets booted out of the Vatican after showing up there unannounced.
Maher does scare up some very interesting people for interviews in the film, including papal Latinist Father Reginald Foster, a friar of the order of Discalced Carmelites. Standing outside the Vatican, a jovial Foster seems to agree with Maher that a literal interpretation of the Bible, and other things about organized religion, are silly. Also speaking against literal interpretations of the Bible is Vatican Astronomer Father George V. Coyne. Homosexuality is another issue addressed in the film. Maher interviews a couple of gay Muslim activists in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. He laughs and says, “That is a very rare job description ... You guys have got big ones.” He also interviews Pastor John Westcott of Calvary Assembly Exchange Ministries in Winter Park, Fla. a formerly gay man now married to a former lesbian. Westcott denies any biological basis whatsoever for homosexuality (because if God created homosexuals then we can't discriminate against them). When Westcott seems to deny the existence of homosexuals, Maher asks him, “Have you ever met Little Richard?” This is intercut in the film with a brief interview with Dr. Dean Hamer of the American University biology lab, who says there is, indeed, a biological basis for homosexuality.
Maher interviews Ferre van Beveren of the cannabis ministry at the Sensi Coffee Shop/Seed Shop in Amsterdam, which is just what it sounds like, an excuse to smoke pot. He interviews Jeremiah Cummings, Founder and Pastor, Amazing Life World Outreach. Cummings was also founder of the soul group Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes. Maher uses a montage of images to show the similarities between pop stars and religious leaders, including the bizarre costumes of each. He also interviewed Steve Burg, an Ex-Jew for Jesus who runs the Liturgical Apostolate Center (expensive religious trinkets) in Boston. Maher touches upon Scientology briefly, accompanied by film clips of Tom Cruise jumping around and acting crazy. The film also shows images of magic Mormon underwear and other amusing religious artifacts. According to one religious belief, a person gets whiter in color as he becomes more spiritual. This is accompanied, hilariously, by a series of photos showing the gradual whitening of rock star Michael Jackson. At the end, back at Meggido, Maher turns serious and warns that all this religious faith, the lack of critical thinking, and the zealotry it leads to is dangerous.
This is not an entirely honest documentary. It uses liberal doses of freeze-frames to stop people from replying to Maher's frequent barbs during interviews. One such freeze-frame stops Christian fundamentalist politician Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) right after he says that you don't have to pass an I.Q. test to become a U.S. Senator. Maher does not seek out theologians who have actually given much thought to the very questions he asks. Maher does not seek out historians who might dispute his claim that there is no historical evidence of the existence of Christ. There are, in fact, non-Biblical references to Christ in historical records. It is true that some dispute the authenticity or validity of all of these records, including the references to Christ by Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, born in 37 A.D., other Jewish writers, the First Century Roman writers and other pagan writers. These disputes, however, seem to go well beyond the bounds of Agnosticism into a kind of stubborn Atheism, which, as Maher rightly points out, is also an unprovable belief.
As a Christian, I've struggled with a lot of the questions that Maher brings up in his documentary. I've been appalled by the behavior of the religious right in this country who have used their political muscle to advance a narrow nationalistic, xenophobic, anti-gay, anti-abortion, anti-Muslim, pro-war, pro-gun, pro-death penalty agenda which has little to do with the teachings of Christ and a lot to do with promoting war, bigotry, hatred and misogyny. This agenda, and the Republicans who used it to advance their real agenda of robbing the poor and middle class to give international corporations and the wealthy what they want, has just about ruined this nation. I've also been appalled at the Christian get-rich-quick schemes. Nothing could be more un-Christian than using Christianity to get rich. Still, even Maher can't deny that while the Bible was once used to justify slavery, it also helped overthrow slavery in this country. The Abolitionists, including nuts like John Brown, were all Bible thumpers. Christianity, under such leaders as Martin Luther King, led the civil rights movement. Christianity has always had core teachings about justice and helping the poor. Christians are even finding pro-environmental initiatives to their liking.
Despite the shortcomings of this film. It is funny. It is not as funny as director Larry Charles previous faux-documentary film, “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.” Some critics have criticized this film as being a one-note song. I think it gets away from that by a lot of globe-trotting and by featuring a lot of fascinating characters. Sure, Maher says the same things over and over, but the people he interviews in the film display a wide variety of views. A couple of good examples are the wasted pot-smoker in Amsterdam and Jose Luis de Jesus Miranda of the Growing in Grace Ministry, Miami, who claims to be the second coming of Christ. Wait until Dan Brown hears about this guy. He claims to be a direct descendant of Christ. This film rates a B.
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