I watched Bill Maher’s documentary Religulous over the weekend. I don’t recommend it…but not for the reasons you might guess.
First, a summary. The documentary is entertaining, and he makes several points that will cause you to think, but overall, the documentary has one goal: to make fun of everything religious. The documentary attacks several different religions. Along with Christianity, he also makes fun of Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Scientologists, and Mormons. Oh, and don’t forget “The Church of Marijuana.” Maher’s conclusion is that religion is the cause of nearly everything that is wrong with the world, and the sooner we rid the world of religion, the better off the human race will be.
Ironically, I kind of agree of him, and I speak from the viewpoint of someone “on the inside.” All day long, every day, I deal with the beliefs and practices of various religions. And while I wouldn’t say that religion is the main cause of all that is wrong with the world, I definitely put it in the top five. (The reason I stay and work in a religious setting is that I hope to redeem it, and the people trapped in it.)
As I watched the documentary, I found myself agreeing with Maher on point after point. Many of his complaints and criticisms are my complaints and criticisms. Some of these criticisms I have written about over the past couple of years on this blog. For example, at one point, Maher voices his opinion that modern “Christianity,” with pastors wearing expensive suits and watches, driving fancy cars, and preaching in giant buildings, cannot be what Jesus wanted for His future followers. (See, for example, this post.)
So why don’t I recommend the movie? Well, for one, there is some profanity, and a mild sex scene (between the Holy Spirit and Mary???). But aside from that, the movie is too disjointed. Not only does he jump from religion to religion, he jumps from issue to issue. Yes, there are issues with religions, but Maher doesn’t seem to desire logical, coherent discussion about the issues, and instead likes to lob in one bomb after another, gleefully watching his target (the person he is interviewing) run around dodging shrapnel. He never really allows any person he is interviewing to finish a point they are making before he switches subjects and asks another loaded question. The one person who was able to make his point was a Jewish Rabbi who, every time Maher tried to change the subject, kept saying “Let me finish.” Maher finally gave up on that interview. Although, I must admit that the Rabbi was not making much sense.
If Maher really is seeking truth (which he claims to be at the beginning of the documentary), rational, respectful, logically-ordered dialogue is the best approach. Maher does none of these things. But then, what can you expect from a comedian? So it’s not truth Maher wants; it’s laughs. And I guess viewed from that perspective, the documentary is a success. It’s not a helpful contribution to the ongoing upheaval in theology and ecclesiology, but it is funny.
So, if you want to laugh at religion (and there’s lots to laugh at!), I guess I recommend the movie after all. If we can’t laugh at ourselves, we have more serious problems in our theology than any of the issues raised by Maher.