Bill Maher's film Religulous is making its appearance in Britain in time for Easter. But it has been around in the United States for several months. Here in New York I went to see it with friends some time ago. It was a strange experience.
I've seen and enjoyed Bill Maher as a stand-up comic and as a TV host on his HBO talk show interviewing guests and commenting on politics. But what is Religulous? Neither stand-up comedy nor talk show.
True, the film has elements of comedy in the way that it caricatures religious practitioners for what they say and how they look. We don't just meet ordinary Christians; we meet Christians like the Jesus actor in the Jesus world theme park in Orlando, Florida and a minister called José Luis de Jesús Miranda who thinks he is a biological descendant of Jesus, actually Jesus incarnate.
Likewise, we don't meet ordinary Jews; we meet Rabbi Yisroel Dovid Weiss, an anti-Zionist Jew who shook the hand of Iranian President Ahmadinejad. And while Bill Maher provides humorous commentary on the interviews he conducts with religious people around the world, he can leave an interviewee, in this case Rabbi Weiss, in mid-sentence. So he doesn't come across as someone who actually wants to hear what religious people say.
Religulous isn't a documentary film either. A documentary film is a movie that documents reality by describing it through interviews and commentary. Michael Moore's films, polemical as they are, would be examples of documentaries shown in movie theatres. Several have proven to be very popular. But a documentary tells a story by starting out with a description of the topic and ending with a new understanding as a result of the investigation.
More often than not, things seen and heard along the way have informed the one doing the documentation. This isn't true of Religulous. Maher starts at Megiddo where he says many people who read Revelations (sic) think the world will end, and he ends in the same spot at Megiddo by saying that religious people may well blow up the world. In 90 minutes we haven't actually gone anywhere.
Along the way, religion is reduced to the point of distortion and caricature. Eastern religions are never considered. Religious people are shown in interviews and film clips only as gullible and fanatic, as fraudulent and nutty. There's one exception that proves the rule, a Catholic astronomer priest who shows that a scientific worldview can only be post-enlightenment and that therefore the biblical view of creation cannot be seen as scientific. Alas, he gets just two minutes.
It would have been more intriguing if Bill Maher had included conversations with theologians, who after all have been part of most religious traditions, and who have rather interesting takes on reading the creation accounts of the Bible or on miracles.
Now and again interviewees say things along these lines, but Maher quickly dismisses such observations as quirky or dishonest without following them up.
It would be even more interesting to find out why Maher is obsessed with religion. In a charming interview with his sister and his mother before she died last summer, he notes that never once when he was growing up did he question why his (Jewish) mother didn't go to Catholic Church with them each Sunday.
Maher professes to be agnostic about religious certainties and critical of those in public office who want to pray to God (an "imaginary friend," Maher says) when confronted with crises. But he falls too easily into caricature rather than the challenge of uncertainty. By the end of the movie we've only gone in a circle - and I don't mean a hermeneutical one.
(c) Deirdre Good is professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary, New York, USA, specializing in the Synoptic Gospels, Christian Origins, Noncanonical writings and biblical languages (http://www.gts.edu/facst_goodbio.asp). Her blog is called On Not Being a Sausage (http://notbeingasausage.blogspot.com/).
You can buy her book Jesus' Family Values through the online Ekklesia book service. http://tinyurl.com/dy2e2a
A version of this article first appeared on Episcopal Cafe. It is reproduced here with grateful acknowledgements. Visit the cafe here: http://www.episcopalcafe.com/