But my people have forgotten me,
they burn incense to false gods;
they have stumbled in their ways,
in the ancient roads,
and have gone into bypaths,
not the highway.
J eremiah 18:15 RSV
Comedian/Commentator Bill Maher comes across as a Prophet of Doubt crying in the Wilderness of Re ligion in this satirical attack on all things religious. Although he leaves out Hinduism and Buddhism— probably because of time or budget constraints—he travels the world in search of prey that prays. At a trucker’s chapel he declares to the chaplain and some truckers that the Bible is a collection of fairy tales. Although one walks out in disgust, the others listen to him politely, though in obvious disagreement.
In Israel he himself walks out on a rabbi who attended an anti-Holocaust conference in Iran. In Utah he ridicules the beliefs of Mormons. In Hyde Park, London, he mounts a soap box posing as a Scientologist offering succor from the Thetans who have invaded our bodies. He talks with a TV preacher named Jose Luis de Jesus Miranda, who believes that he is the Jesus of the Second Coming. He stops by the office of a U.S. Senator who believes the Second Coming will be soon, as well as that of a deprogrammer of gays and lesbians. Denied official permission for filming at a Bible theme park in Orlando, he nevertheless interviews the actor playing Jesus, and also the head of the Bible Creation Museum in northern Kentucky. Maher even interrogates his own mother, a non-practicing Jew, about his background of attending church with his Catholic father, until the latter stopped going, thus freeing the son from the long boring Sunday ordeals.
In all of the above encounters, Mr. Maher points out the absurdities of the interviewees’ beliefs. Although thinking Christians will agree with many of his criticisms and find a lot of his observations and inserted clips (from newsreels and biblical films) very funny, we might also be repulsed by a good many of his smug remarks and tactics. That he seems many times to be a Borat wandering the land comes as no surprise when you learn that Larry Charles directed both films.
It is interesting that Maher does not follow up much on the remarks of the two intellectual priests he interviews in Vatican City. The first once worked at the Vatican Observatory, and definitely disagrees with the head of the Creation Museum concerning the age of the world. Both refuse to take the Bible literally, so Maher’s objections about the story of Jonah and the big fish are shared by them.
This is both a funny, amusing film and one that a church group that is not easily offended could have a great time in discussing faith and doubt. Like several atheist scientists and thinkers who have written books attacking religion, this film dwells mainly on all the atrocities committed by believers and the absurdities of taking Scriptures literally. I would have loved to see an encounter between Maher and a thinking believer such as C.S. Lewis. Viewers should resist the impulse to go into defensive mode, but stick around and listen to what a skeptic has to say. Bill Maher is really afraid of what can happen to our world when leaders and peoples are motivated by the dark side of their beliefs—will Armageddon be triggered by believers caught up in a clash of civilizations?
For reflection and discussion 1) Which of Maher’s criticisms do you agree with? How have believers’ acts discredited their religion?
2) Which of his charges do you not accept? It is easy to criticize islam and its extremists, but what those within the “Christian” fold?
3) How have you grown through the years in your understanding of the Scriptures? Why is it dangerous to take everything within them literally? What do you think of the claim of believers who say, “We do not take the Bible literally, but we do take it seriously” ? What is the difference?
3) How does Mr. Maher, as well as Biblical literalists, miss the point of the Book of Jonah? Is it really a miracle tale about a fish (or whale) swallowing and then regurgitating a man, or is it a tract or humorous short story dealing with human intolerance and God’s grace?
4) Some have called the emphasis upon a literal Bible “Bibliolatry.” How are those who have fallen into this trap like those whom Jeremiah denounced as “burning incense to false gods” ? What are some of the horrors committed by “Christians” that have resulted from this?
5) What contrasts did you see between the wealthy TV evangelist and Mr. Maher’s perception of Jesus? What seems to be the filmmaker’s opinion of Jesus—at least the Jesus of story? Does Maher seem to believe in the historicity of Jesus?
6) Maher points to the similarity among the various stories about gods, especially between Horus and Jesus. Check this out to see if he might be stretching things a bit: Wikepedia has a long article on the Egyptian god. Granted that there are many common points among the different religions, but does this disprove the gospel story?
7) Other than the two priests in Rome, did Maher interview any sophisticated Christians? Why not Jim Wallis, Cornel West, or Rick Warren? How do you think he might fare up against them?
8) What do you think of some of Maher’s tactics? Detect any smugness or misuse of people?
9) What points of Maher, if any, made you think about your own beliefs? What do you think of his impassioned conclusion which includes, “Religion must die for mankind to live” ?
10) Why is it important to examine them continually? How is doubt an integral part of this process, something to be embrace by people of faith, and not feared?