Quiet a few days Paula, our friend Simon Jones, and I were discussing religion and culture during which Simon showed us a clip from the film Religulous in which Bill Maher goes to The Holy Land Experience (A theme park that the proprietors refer to as “a living biblical history museum) to confront Christians with the ridiculousness of their beliefs. As the clip unfolded it was clear that Bill obtained his objective, particularly as he confronted them with the historical problem that many elements of the Gospels are paralleled in other stories of Ancient Near Eastern figures and divinities, as well as the philosophical problem of the tension that exists between evil in the world and belief in God’s goodness and sovereignty.
In watching the clip I must admit that I felt defensive, as I understand the importance of both history and philosophy in relation to the claims of Christianity, and yet I also understand that the verity of Christianity is beyond the scope of either of these fields of inquiry. In discussing this with Simon, however, I made note Mr. Maher’s choice of audience to confront with his supposedly faith damaging arguments. In short, Bill chose the type of Christian one would likely find at Christian theme park. Yes, this is a bit judgmental of me, but I imagine that behind the scenes Bill and his staff did their demographic homework regarding the kind of audience that would provide the most entertainment to be on the receiving end of Bill’s sharp wit. The Christians Mr. Maher confronts are your basic middle class, wage-working types, who don’t find a Christian theme park a bit kitschy, and who very likely don’t read a lot of scholarly articles and books, but who have a faith that emerges from what historian and biblical scholar N.T. Wright refers to as “an existential kicking of the tires.” In other words, they believe for deeply personal reasons that do not rely upon historical evidence or tight philosophical reasons, but rather rely upon the self-authenticating experience of the Gospel that gives them strength to live in a difficult and challenging world (I am aware that this is a deeply pragmatic understanding of faith, but addressing this is best left for another post).
At this point I was ready to call Bill an intellectual bully, but as I did research on the film, I found that he did speak to some intellectuals, as well as what might be referred to as “high level” types of various religious institutions. So, against what I initially thought, it appears that Mr. Maher was even handed in his demographic selection for those who would be on the receiving end of his sardonic wit. Having made this concession, however, it is clear that Religulous is not a sincere documentary about the problem of religious belief in modern society. To begin with, the title is a mash-up of the words “religion” and “ridiculous,” which briefly and powerfully expresses Bill’s convictions about the subject and provides a cue to the audience as to what position they should take in relation to the forthcoming content of the film. And then, without even seeing the documentary, I do know enough about the dynamics of visual and verbal rhetoric that through the process of editing and framing I bet those of a religious persuasion are not genuinely given a chance to appear credible.
As I have further reflected upon this clip and the whole intent of the film, it seems to me that the problem Bill attempts to confront regarding religion and rationality is one that is inherent within his basic disposition toward the world. To illustrate what I mean, if Bill had confronted someone who was able to defend himself, or better still, who was able to persuade Bill that religion is a rationally acceptable response to the complexities of modern existence, though the battle may have been won, the war would have been lost. In short, if the reality of God can be supported and defended within the rationalist presuppositions of Bill’s worldview, then God would not be the kind of reality worthy of the worship and awe that monotheistic religions ascribe to him.
In the clip I viewed, Bill brought up the Holocaust to drive home the absurdity of believing that God is all good and all powerful (a typical monotheistic assertion). In response to this, the man Bill accosted (interestingly an actor who portrays Jesus in a dramatic reenactment of the crucifixion) made the assertion that God’s ways are beyond us. As was to be expected, Mr. Maher was visibly unimpressed. All of this reminded me of the first time I read Night, a loosely autobiographical novel about a young man’s experience of surviving a death camp in Nazi Germany. This book was penned by Eli Wiesel, who about the problem of God’s providence and the Holocaust experience once said something to the effect that he did not want to hear an explanation where those two realities can be reconciled. In saying this I don’t think Wiesel was repudiating God’s existence. He was in fact a professor of Religion at Boston University, who taught courses about literature, religion, and memory. Instead, I think Mr. Weisel was committed to breaking all idolatry regarding our notions of God, and an idol is what one would have if one could rationally account for the Holocaust and God’s existence. Likewise, an idol is what Mr. Maher would have if he ever found an account of religious belief that was acceptable to his intellectual framework, for it would be merely a projection of what he already worships: his own powerful mind and likely a belief in the all encompassing sufficiency of reason.