I went to see Bill Maher’s Religulous a few weekends ago with an Independent Film Club I found on www.meetup.com. Most of the club’s members were thrilled to watch a movie that shared their perspectives on religion.
Obviously, my posture on controversial films like Maher’s is that it’s better to engage than censor. Christians would do well to know what a growing segment of Americans think about them, and Maher’s work is surely representative of many.
Maher points to the latest Pew Forum study, which reveals that 16% of American adults are unaffiliated with any religion. (By the way, our Percept studies show that Uptown’s unaffiliated population is 34-44%—more than twice the national percentage.)
Interestingly, one of my non-Christian friends was rather surprised that I planned to see the movie. He said, “I mean, I’m not even a religious person and I don’t like what [Maher’s] doing.” So maybe Maher isn’t representative of all 16%.
On the whole, I thought the movie was both hilarious and disturbing. I laughed and gasped all the way through it. I’ve seen very few “documentaries” that captured the audience’s attention the way Religulous did.
And I found myself agreeing with Maher throughout most of the movie. Many of the people he interviewed were missing the point, missing the teachings of Jesus.
But my agreement with Maher was simultaneously the source of my disappointment with the film. In short, he most frequently picked on the religious people easiest to pick on: nominalists and fanatics. The movie largely turned out to be a caricatured picture of religion based upon vignettes of religious crazies—which is a legitimate project in itself, don’t get me wrong.
But Maher almost totally misses the segment of religious people—Christians in particular—who are thinking and living more deeply into the way of Jesus.
I found myself turning to a book I’ve read recently as a way of helping me to process what I watched: Tim Keller’s The Reason for God. [This book is a must-buy. It will, in my opinion, be a (if not the) prominent apologetic for the next generation …not to be used as a ‘conversion book’, by any means, but as a conversation starter with skeptics.]
Here’s one pertinent quote:
Many people who take an intellectual stand against Christianity do so against a background of personal disappointment with Christians and churches. We all bring to issues intellectual predispositions based on our own experiences. If you have known many wise, loving, kind and insightful Christians over the years, and if you have seen churches that are devout in belief yet civic-minded and generous, you will find the intellectual case for Christianity much more plausible. If, on the other hand, the preponderance of your experience is with nominal Christians (who bear the name but don’t practice it) or with self-righteous fanatics, then the arguments for Christianity will have to be extremely strong for you to concede that they have any cogency at all. (52)
Keller goes on to explore the common spectrum used with nominal Christians on one end and fanatical Christians on the other:
In this schematic, the best kind of Christian would be someone in the middle, someone who doesn’t go all the way with it, who believes it but is not too devoted to it. The problem with this approach is that it assumes that the Christian faith is basically a form of moral improvement….
What if, however, the essence of Christianity is salvation by grace, salvation not because of what we do but because of what Christ has done for us? …. The people who are fanatics, then, are so not because they are too committed to the gospel but because they are not committed to it enough.
Think of people you consider fanatical. They’re overbearing, self-righteous, opinionated, insensitive, and harsh. Why? It’s not because they are too Christian but because they are not Christian enough. They are fanatically zealous and courageous, but they are not fanatically humble, sensitive, loving, empathetic, forgiving, or understanding—as Christ was. (57)
Yes. Yes. Yes.
Maher ends his film by proposing that the world would be better off without religion. Religion, then, is a mental neurosis of which people need to be healed.
The correct alternative is ignorance—to admit we have no idea what’s really going on with the spiritual realm and higher powers. Maher seems to hold to this belief as dogmatically as any religious fundamentalist or devout atheist would hold to theirs. The irony abounds.
Yet Keller would point out that secularism hasn’t been the answer to the world’s problems either. Take Communist Russia, for instance: a project based on atheism that didn’t turn out much better than the worlds created by religious crazies.
Perhaps the answer is not to reject religion—Christianity in my case—in favor of disbelieving secularism but rather to live more deeply into the way of Jesus. As Keller wisely states,
The typical criticisms by secular people about the oppressiveness and injustices of the Christian church actually come from Christianity’s own resources for critique of itself [e.g., the Prophets]….The answer is not to abandon the Christian faith, because that would leave us with neither the standards nor the resources to make correction. Instead we should move to a fuller and deeper grasp of what Christianity is. (61-62)
If you enjoyed this post, you’d probably also enjoy a much better review of the movie by my friend Steve Holt at Jesus Manifesto.