Comedy tastes change over time. I’m sure a water-squirting daisy on a jacket lapel was a riot in its day. Knock-knock jokes kept me and my friends pretty entertained in second grade. And I’m sure Henny Youngman would not get the same laughs today if he were still alive doing stand up.
The new film Religulous starring comedian Bill Maher (HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher) and directed by Larry Charles (Borat, Curb Your Enthusiasm) seemed to fall pretty flat in the laughs department—like it was appealing to an audience that may have been amused by it twenty years ago. I was struck by how little laughter there was among those in the opening-weekend crowd. (In terms of magnitude, I use the word “crowd” here in the sense of the “crowd” that might attend a Joe Biden campaign rally.) Religulous was showing in the smallest theater in the multiplex (not much bigger than the “truck-driver’s chapel” that appeared in the film) and even then it was only about a third full.
It was pretty clear that the few folks attracted to the movie were already fans of Bill Maher and his open hostility to all things religious. Why, then, so little laughter from them? I think it’s obvious. Anyone who fits that strange “I’m smarter than Blaise Pascal, John Milton, C.S. Lewis, Maimonidies, and Averroes put together” mold has already had his laughs. After all, anyone who is able to work a TV remote control has immediate and never-ending access to some of the strangest displays of human religiosity imaginable on global network broadcasts. Those who get affirmed in their irreligion by watching such things have already tuned into the craziness many times to reassure themselves that believers are some fully evolved species of super kook. They do not need Bill Maher to replay it with a new soundtrack. The movie audience seemed pretty bored—and rightly so. They’d seen it all before on their own living room TVs.
Well, if it’s not very funny, then what does it have to offer? Nothing, really, except a chance for Maher and Charles to make a fast buck (glad I got my ticket for free). Maher is pitching this film as mavericky—telling the truth about religion that everyone else is afraid to address. But Religulous is nothing more than filthy, nudie, druggie, and obtusey. There is little to laugh at and nothing to learn (except maybe that if you quit being religulous you get to act like Caligulous).
Christianity gets more than two thirds of the attention in the film. Were there any thoughtful and penetrating objections to Christianity in the film? No. Did they interview any thoughtful and accomplished Christian scholars. No. The closest they came to this was an interview with renowned scientist Dr. Francis Collins whose segment in the film made almost no sense indicating that they had butchered it down to nubs in the editing room.
Maher does bring up two points that are argued on occasion by knowledgeable opponents of Christianity. These are 1) that the New Testament was produced generations after the events they record, and 2) that the basic story of Jesus is simply a retelling of myths that predated him, myths that came out of Mitharism and Egyptian religion.
The latter argument is itself a retelling of the myth re-popularlized by Dan Brown in the The Da Vinci Code. Bill Maher and Dan Brown made the inexcusable error of never actually consulting experts in these ancient religions—or even doing a brief Google search. For instance, Prof. Gunter Wagner has set forth the conclusion of the evidence attempting to link Christianity with Mithraism. Writes Wagner, “Mithras does not belong to the dying and rising gods, and no death and resurrection ritual has ever been associated with this cult. Moreover, on account of the lateness of its spread, there is no evidence of the Mithras cult influencing primitive Christianity.”
As for the idea that the New Testament was written much later than Christians have traditionally believed, again, even a cursory study of the facts of the case would be helpful to people like Maher who claim to have objections based on evidence. It has been for many years the consensus of most modern scholars—believers and skeptics alike—that the Gospels were written in the latter half of the First Century AD The most common date ranges for the authorship of these documents are 70-80 AD for Matthew, 60-70 for Mark, 70-80 for Luke, and 80-90 for John. Since Jesus departed earth around 30 AD, these dates of authorship all fall into the generation that had first-hand contact with the events recorded. Maher simply seems to buy the popular mythologies and unquestioned assumptions that often pass for knowledge about early Christian history.
If a careful examination of the evidence did not drive Bill Maher to his conclusions about Christianity, then what did? Maher is wide open in the movie about the religious environment of his childhood. He was raised in a religiously schizophrenic home with a Roman Catholic mother and a Jewish father. He attended mass and Catholic school until he was thirteen when his family suddenly stopped. His mother said it was because she and her husband were tired of feeling guilty about using birth control. It wouldn’t be a stretch to propose a causal relationship between the way Maher’s family treated Christianity like a semi-useful fiction and Bill’s adult conclusion that Christianity is bunk. It reminds me of the great atheist of last century, Bertrand Russell. We really don’t get much in the way of substance when we read Russell’s famous book, Why I Am Not a Christian. But we seem to get far greater insight about Russell’s rejection of Christianity when we read his less famous autobiography. Like Maher, Russell’s dysfunctional religious upbringing seems to be far weightier than any rational argument in moving him to godlessness.
If there is one important lesson for Christians of all sorts to learn from this movie it is this: we have got to start talking differently about “faith.” Unfortunately, we have let the secular world and antagonists like Bill Maher define the term for us. What they mean by “faith” is blind leaping. That is what they think our commitment to Christ and the Christian view of the world is all about. They think we have simply disengaged our minds and leapt blindly into the religious abyss.
The biblical view of saving Christian faith has never had anything to do with blind leaping. Jesus himself was fixed on the idea that we can know the truth—and not just in some spiritual or mystical way. Rather, he taught that we can know the truth about God, humans, and salvation objectively. That is, the very best forms of investigation, evidence, and careful reasoning will inevitably point to God and His great plans for us. The early church learned well from the Master because they too were fixed on the idea that they knew that Jesus was raised from the dead and that we could know it too. The Apostles never made any room for interpreting their experiences of the risen Christ in some mystical or fictional fashion. As the Apostle Peter put it, “We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Peter 1:16).
What we mean by “faith” is not blind leaping that is oblivious to the evidence, especially evidence to the contrary. Rather faith in it’s biblical context is trust grounded in objective knowledge. Faith is trusting that which we can know to be objectively true. I run a graduate program in Christian Apologetics at Biola University in which we train students at the highest levels to give compelling reasons for their faith. Maher did not knock on our door. But unfortunately, I think many of the Christians he interviewed would be surprised to learn that there is a robust knowledge tradition in Christianity. I long for the day when a guy like Maher would never consider making a film like this because it would be so difficult to find Christians that he could hound and hoodwink.
Maher and Charles successfully put some of the goofiest strands of the Christian movement on public display for cinematic ridicule. Great skill, intellect, or cleverness, that did not require. The greater feat would be for the two documentarians to jump out of their own shallow presuppositions and prejudices to get a fresh look at what has made Christianity attractive to some of the greatest minds in human history. But I think it’s a good bet that they don’t have a sequel like that on the drawing board. ExileStreet